Chapter 361. What It Means to Change (3)

Inside, a woman was sitting on a bed staring helplessly into the air.

She seemed unaware of the saliva dripping from her open mouth, and appeared mentally ill.

Seol Jihu followed Jang Maldong’s gaze into the open room and frowned.

The patient looked oddly familiar.

He knew he’d seen her somewhere before.

“Julian Clara.”

Jang Maldong read her name from the file.

‘Ah.’ Seol Jihu groaned inwardly.

“I believe she was Samuel’s teammate…. Do you recognize her?”

Seol Jihu unwittingly nodded his head.

“It says here she died when she was Level 2. She spent about seven months on the other side.”

“Only seven months?”

“She’s one of the lucky ones.”

Jang Maldong emphasized.

“As you said, she didn’t resort to making any extreme decisions because her time in Paradise was relatively short. But she’s not exactly fine. The disease of the mind is a terrifying thing. It grows quickly and devours its host from within.”

“…”

“Although… it really depends on the person.”

It was then.

A sudden sound caused Jang Maldong to stop.

It was quite a loud noise, but Clara didn’t react at all.

Seol Jihu hurried to the bathroom down the hallway, the source of the noise.

There, he saw a black man lying down on the floor, moaning and shaking.

A couple of nurses rushed to the fallen man and helped him up.

The man was tall but scrawny like a skeleton.

He had foam at his mouth, and his face was covered with age spots. He clearly didn’t look normal.

With a stiff face, Jang Maldong watched the patient leave and said.

“…Let’s go.”

He began walking again.

Seol Jihu looked back at Clara and hesitated for a moment before he hurriedly followed the old man.

Together they left the main building and headed for the hospital’s charnel house.

Hundreds of pots containing cremated remains were neatly placed in cabinets behind a glass window.

Jang Maldong, who was rummaging through the file, soon took off his fedora and stood in front of the window.

Seol Jihu became speechless again.

He recognized a lot of faces.

“Samuel, Grace, Alex… Even Miss Veronica!”

A groan escaped Seol Jihu’s lips when he saw Veronica’s smiling face in a photo taped to the window.

They worked on the Ramman Village case together. She was Mikhail’s teammate. She must have died as well.

“For Level 4 Earthlings, the mortality rises dramatically to 50%. For Level 5, it further increases to about 60-70%. This means that six to seven in every ten people die.”

Jang Maldong spoke calmly.

“I’m not making this up. This is what the statistics say.”

At that point, a face flashed in Seol Jihu’s mind.

“Master. About Dylan—”

“…You’ve already met him.”

“Huh? When?”

“At the bathroom.”

Seol Jihu’s eyes instantly widened.

The Dylan in his memory was nothing like the man he saw earlier in the bathroom.

Dylan was a big man with a strong build and large stature. He could even pass as an NBA player.

“No— No way. How can Dylan….”

“He’s hooked on drugs.”

“Drugs?”

“Yes. I suppose he turned to drugs to relieve his pain and emptiness. But he went too far.”

Seol Jihu stepped back unconsciously before turning around.

“What can you do even if you go?”

However, Jang Maldong’s voice stopped him.

“I went to see him a long time ago when I first heard of his death. So did Chohong and Hugo. But he wasn’t in any condition to talk. Dylan doesn’t remember us.”

“I— I had no idea. No one told me.”

“Of course not. What good would that do?”

Seol Jihu’s face trembled slightly.

Jang Maldong sighed at the look on his face.

“…Jihu.”

He called in a soft voice.

“You know, sometimes I feel like you’re treating the other world like it’s a game.”

“Me? You feel that I think of it as a game?”

“I know you don’t. But your behavior makes me think you do.”

Jang Maldong said, turning around to face the pots.

“That place is definitely not a game. It’s a different kind of reality. Your death on the other side will certainly affect your life on Earth.”

“That’s….”

“But you don’t care about yourself as much as you care about Paradise. ‘So what if I die? It’s only a game.’ Frankly, that’s how you act.”

Seol Jihu shut his mouth tight.

“There’s a good reason why a lot of people who spend time there travel back to Earth regularly. In that sense, they perceive Paradise as a reality much more than you do.”

Jang Maldong continued.

“Many who undergo treatment still end up dead somewhere down the road. You saw it yourself. The mortality rate isn’t the only problem. Even if you survive, you’re likely to suffer from mental illness. It suffices to say that most former Earthlings develop some kind of problem post-death.”

“…”

“You can’t stay that way. If Paradise becomes safe again, then maybe things could change. But as of now, you shouldn’t be thinking of settling down in Paradise.”

Jang Maldong emphasized twice.

“…That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

He pressed his fedora down over his head, turned around, and left the charnel house.

Seol Jihu didn’t follow him.

He stood dazed in the middle of the room, his eyes slowly scanning the hundreds of pots enshrined in the charnel house.

He still couldn’t believe that Samuel, who was always so cheerful, and Alex, who was so optimistic, committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the desolation of their lives.

And Grace, too. Clara now had a mental health issue, and Dylan….

“…”

The truth was, Jang Maldong’s words shocked him more than anything else.

[Sometimes I feel like you’re treating the other world like it’s a game.]

He would’ve refuted that claim right away had he not seen what he saw in the hospital.

After coming face to face with reality, he could no longer be in denial.

He knew there was a penalty to death, but he never imagined it would be so horrible.

Seol Jihu bit his lips, his eyes turning again to the pots containing the remains.


*

It took Seol Jihu a while to pull himself together and leave the charnel house.

Jang Maldong was waiting for him outside.

The two men left the hospital without saying a word.

Both Seol Jihu and Jang Maldong’s hearts were heavy.

Instead of heading back to the hotel, Jang Maldong led Seol Jihu to the streets.

“…Well, not everyone dies.”

The old man finally broke the prolonged silence.

Seol Jihu raised his eyes.

The street was dark, except for one streak of bright light.

“There are people who managed to return to their normal lives, some through sheer effort, and some because they were born stronger than others.”

Jang Maldong slowed down and pointed his finger forward.

When they got to the door, Seol Jihu could see a small space inside.

It looked like a secondhand bookstore, lined with bookshelves full of old books.

A man who looked to be the shop owner sat behind the counter, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.

The screen showed a scene from a Japanese anime.

“Uhehehe.”

The old man, dressed in an oversize robe, tilted his head back and laughed.

Seol Jihu’s jaw slowly dropped as he watched the old man from the door.

He remembered that laugh very well.

“M-Master Ian?”

The old man quickly turned his head towards the voice.

The face that was revealed was undoubtedly Ian’s face.

Ian got up from his seat and hurried to open the door.

He seemed surprised to find the two men standing on the other side.

“Mister Jang? What are you doing here?”

“I came here on a vacation, so I thought I’d pay you a visit.”

Jang Maldong answered in fluent French.

“At this hour? You should’ve come earlier!”

Ian chuckled, stroking his long beard.

But then he looked at the young man next to Jang Maldong and tilted his head to the side.

“I don’t think I’ve seen this young man before….”

“You don’t think? So you’re not sure?”

“Well, he feels oddly familiar. It’s strange. Why do I like him already? I’m not that kind of person.”

“Huhu. You’re still as quick-witted as ever. He’s the one.”

Ian’s eyes widened.

“No way!”

“Yes, he’s the main character of the novel you’ve been writing. You said you wanted to meet him, so I brought him here.”

Ian quickly spun around, as if he had been stung by a bee.

“Ah, come in, come in!” he said in a hurry.

Seol Jihu carefully went inside and sat down in the seat designated by Ian.

“Let’s see. I know I put it here….”

Rummaging through his desk drawer, Ian pulled out a notebook and smiled triumphantly.

Well-thumbed and faded, the notebook appeared to have been used for a long time.

“Huhu, so this day has finally come. Thank you, Mister Jang.”

“I should be thanking you for staying alive.”

“Damn you. Don’t jinx me.”

With an upbeat smile, Ian turned to the young man.

Seol Jihu was looking at the old man with slightly wet eyes.

His heart felt heavy with indescribable emotion.

He was glad to see Ian and, like Jang Maldong, glad that Ian was alive, especially because he had just come back from the hospital.

“Uh…. Could you tell him to stop looking at me with such passionate eyes? I’m not interested in men.”

Jang Maldong gave a light chuckle.

“…You look well.”

He translated Seol Jihu’s words, and Ian smiled.

“So you know who I am?”

“Yes, of course. You’re Ian Denzel.”

“Hmm? Did I tell you my name was Ian Denzel?”

“Pardon?”

“Sheesh! I can’t believe I was so immature.”

Ian slapped his forehead and groaned.

He then bowed his head politely.

“‘I apologize. The name Ian Denzel is actually an alias. My real name is Muah-Muah Tsaerb.’ He says… but muah is a kissing sound and tsaerb is… well, try reading it backwards.”

Jang Maldong explained, clicking his tongue.

Seol Jihu read it backwards and burst out laughing.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and calmed his breath.

“You haven’t changed at all, Master Ian.”

“Jeez. It’s no fun if you tell him.”

“Still, I’m glad. I really am.”

“Huhu. That’s right, how’s the pink princess doing?”

Seol Jihu’s eyes brightened.

‘He remembers Teresa?’

“She’s doing fine. But how do you remember her? Don’t tell me—”

“If you’re going to ask me if my memories are intact, the answer is no.”

Ian snickered.

“Honestly, I don’t recognize your face. Today is my first time seeing it. My, as in me, who’s here and now.”

“Then….”

“But I’ve got some sense of the situation.”

‘Where should I start?’ Ian closed his eyes, stroking his long beard.

“One day, when I opened my eyes, I realized something was wrong. I woke up with most of my memories of the last few years gone. It was literally driving me crazy.”

Recalling those days, Ian smacked his lips.

“It was incredibly painful. I suffered from a severe headache for no reason and felt so very empty that I almost lost my will to live. And then a note caught my eye.”

“A note?”

“If one day you wake up and feel a sense of alienation, find the diary at your desk and read it. Read it, and replace the memories you’ve lost with the contents of the diary. What’s written in it is not a lie, it has actually happened…. I saw these notes all over the house. So I went to look for the diary, and it really was there.”

Ian tapped lightly on the old notebook.

“I opened it and found a novel inside. A full-length, blockbuster novel. I couldn’t help but admire it the whole time I read it. It was well-written, sure, but what caught my eye more than the author’s writing skill was the fact that this novel was so surprisingly realistic. I've never read such a realistic novel in my life.”

“So the diary helped you overcome your sense of alienation?”

“Perhaps. I can’t say I’ve fully overcome it yet, but… at least I know for sure that I was the one who wrote the diary. The entries described in detail the habits that only I know.”

Seol Jihu smiled. He felt like he knew what those habits were.

Ian scratched his cheek.

“Anyway, I read the diary from cover to cover. I read it whenever my sense of alienation began to creep in. And then, people I don’t remember began to visit me. This finally made me realize that the diary wasn’t just a novel, but a reality. Mister Jang is one of those people.”

Ian gave a warm smile, and Jang Maldong coughed awkwardly as he translated Ian’s words.

“Thanks to my previous efforts and help from dedicated friends, I now have a goal.”

Seol Jihu listened attentively. It still felt surreal to him that he could see Ian and hear Ian’s voice.

“To complete a novel based on my diary.”

“A novel?”

“Yes. The story stopped in the middle, but I want to see it through. And, to do that, I had to switch the main character.”

Ian paused and winked at Seol Jihu.

“You mean me?”

“Correct. The diary says your name is Seol?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“But Mister Jang said that’s not your first name.”

“Yes. Seol is my last name and Jihu is my first name. Seol is the last name character, Ji means strong and Hu means jade.”

“I wondered, why did you only reveal your last name?”

“I was embarrassed.”

“About what? It’s a great name!”

Seol Jihu smiled broadly.

“You said the same thing back then.”

“Back when?”

“Just before you passed away. You asked me the same question.”

“Oho. So that means you were by my side when I died….”

Ian squealed in glee.

“Good, that’s good. That part wasn’t in the diary. You’ve seen my death with your own eyes, which means you can tell me about it in detail.”

He opened the diary, giggling as if he was having all the fun in the world.

“Let’s see, where did it end…. Ah, right, since you’re here, can I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Of course. As you wish.”

“Good, good. I know you can’t talk to me about the names of people and places because of penalties and stuff, but I still have plenty of questions for you besides all that. Also, there’s something I really want to tell you.”

“Me…?”

“Hold on. Where is it… Ah, this part.”

Ian put on his reading glasses and pointed at a passage in the diary.

It was written in French, so of course, Seol Jihu couldn’t read it.

“The first thought that crossed my mind when I read this was… Why? Why did I say this? Was I drunk or something?”

“?”

“Of course, it’s only natural that what I used to think is different from what I think now. My past self had different knowledge and was in a completely different situation from mine.”

Suddenly, Ian’s face became serious.

“This part bothered me a lot as I read my diary. If you were to ask me the same question now, I’d give you a slightly different answer. And now I finally have a chance to do just that.”

Ian spoke.

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