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    The grandmother took a puff of smoke with a pleased expression and crushed the cigar on the ashtray as if it were the last time. The silent man beside her slowly extinguished his own cigarette. At that sight, the grandmother, whose face looked warmer than ever, quietly spoke up.

    “Why did you light it if you weren’t going to smoke it?”

    The man merely chuckled lightly.

    “I’m quitting smoking.”

    His deep, raspy voice was so low it sent shivers down my spine. The rough timbre circling my ears made my fingers twitch momentarily. Anyway, it felt awkward to interrupt their conversation, but not to greet them either. At that moment, I made eye contact with grandmother and bowed my head silently, indicating that I had returned.

    The atmosphere didn’t seem right for dinner, so I decided to tidy up and got my frozen legs moving again. Should I ask grandmother’s guest if I could borrow his phone, or maybe ask for a ride to the police station?

    Even though they seemed intimidating, they didn’t seem like bad people if they treated grandmother so respectfully…

    “…!”

    Then, a shadow loomed over my head. I instinctively turned my body to put distance between us with the cart.

    “…”

    “…”

    My heart pounded, but I quickly regained my composure. Why is he following me? Even though I knew it was rude, I frowned out of annoyance. They were intimidating, but they hadn’t harmed me, which made them slightly less scary… Ah, what is this… Why is he acting like this…

    The strange silence continued for a long time. Seeming flustered, the man with sharp eyes hesitantly withdrew his arm and placed his hand on my cart. I was unconsciously startled to see he was missing a finger as he touched the cart, I slowly backed away to put space between us. If I didn’t want it, I wished he would just stop.

    After that strange tussle, the snake-like man finally opened his tightly closed mouth.

    “I’ll do it.”

    “…Why would you?”

    “…”

    The whole thing was baffling to me, yet he seemed more shocked than I was. When I frowned, he finally withdrew his hand. Seeing my chance, I quickly left. Even as I brought only the empty cart back inside, he silently stood outside the kitchen.

    I thought he was really strange, but I didn’t say it out loud. Though burdened, I kept quiet and endured. First, I had to return the cart to its original place. After finishing my work, I sat down on the bench to rest, feeling my eyes grow heavy with fatigue.

    Just moving that made my legs shake and tire me out…

    I took off my slippers and dirt-caked gloves, rolling up my sleeves and pants legs. To wake myself up, I walked a few steps in my bare, soiled feet and washed my hands and feet in the cold water I had set aside in a basin under the faucet. As I cleaned myself, I carefully inspected my swollen feet, concerned they didn’t seem to be recovering.

    While I was looking around, the grandmother approached me as if the conversation was over. And then she suddenly bids farewell.

    “Pack your bags and take care.”

    “Me? I’m going? Now?”

    With whom? Those people? I couldn’t hide my confusion. I clearly had so much to say, but couldn’t think of anything. Before I could even dry myself off, stiffly holding out my arms, grandmother shoved a white envelope into my chest like crumpling paper.

    “Here. Buy yourself something nice.”

    “No.”

    “You can’t stay if you’re in this much pain.”

    The envelope felt too thick. Without even looking inside, I quickly returned it to her. Even if it were filled with small bills, I wouldn’t accept it. How could I take money from my benefactor? No matter how much I refused, grandmother took a firm stance.

    “Keep it.”

    “Grandma…”

    Even the voice deepens with emotion. Why would she go to such lengths to look after me and worry about me like this? I sincerely grasped my grandmother’s rough hands holding my shoulders.

    To be honest, I was in urgent need of a phone, and it had been frustrating that grandfather hadn’t shown up despite being expected. I was disappointed and suspicious at the same time that she didn’t even tell me when she could have driven the tiller down to the village… I began to reflect on how dare I have doubted myself. The urgent phone call was my issue, not grandmother’s. I should handle my own matters. The same goes for grandmother.

    “If you’re going to give me this money, use it to get the phone connected first. That’s the only urgent thing here. Call someone to fix it as soon as possible.”

    And was it behind the kitchen? There was a place where garlic was hung in lines, and bees kept swarming around. I patted my grandmother’s hand reassuringly, thinking I should call 119 emergency while I was at it.

    “And do something about the hot water. It’s inconvenient to boil it every time you need warm water. It’ll be even harder to do laundry in the winter. I’ll definitely get you a washing machine. I have a lot of savings.”

    Though saying that did make me think about those 10 lottery tickets.

    Was I kicked out of home or something? Am I broke? I don’t remember, but maybe I caused an accident? I quickly stopped my spinning thoughts. If nothing else, I could say this firmly – the probability that I caused an accident is slim. It’s more plausible that my family went bankrupt.

    “Well, anyway, don’t worry about me. I have a lot of money at home.”

    No, even if my family went bankrupt, there was no reason to show anxiety in front of grandmother. I figured it would be better to leave on a positive note, so I hid my anxiety.

    “You talk well. Okay. Live well out there.”

    “Yes.”

    Grandmother nodded, firmly holding my hand. Even though it was a short time, I felt a bond had formed between us, and my heart ached.

    “Eat well. Don’t go hungry.”

    “You too, Grandma.”

    “And don’t wander around looking like a beggar. Comb your hair properly.”

    “…”

    “Don’t go around doing something stupid again. That just worries your parents. Why were you wandering in the mountains?”

    I wasn’t wandering, I just got lost… And compared to how I looked just coming down from the mountain, I look so much more human now, yet she’s still treating me like a beggar. I silently accepted grandmother’s callused hands stroking my head, ignoring my burning cheeks.

    “Don’t talk back and just study obediently at home. Understand? To become a great person, you need to be smart.”

    “Yes…”

    “Don’t pick up and eat things you find on the street. Don’t put anything in your mouth if you don’t know what it is. Don’t eat strange things you find.”

    “Yes… ”

    “Oh, you fool…”

    The unexpected harshness of her words froze me in shock.

    “You’re just a big kid. Yeah, don’t cause your hyung any more grief. Go home and take care of yourself.”

    “… Hyung?”

    Hyung? Whose hyung? Me? My hyung? For some reason, I felt I knew who she was referring to and rolled my eyes. Just as I was about to look up, I caught a glimpse over Grandma’s shoulder and quickly lowered my gaze again.

    I quickly bowed my head and lowered my gaze. So he wasn’t someone Grandmother called, but my brother? But I only have a younger sister. Could it be that my parents got divorced? With no memories, I couldn’t be sure.

    I had often thought it would be better for my parents’ mental health if they divorced. Given their strained relationship, the idea that one of them might have remarried and given me a stepbrother seemed plausible. 

    But which one? And who had they married to bring someone like him into the family? The reality felt like it was slipping away from me. Seeing those people earlier had already thrown me off, but now, I felt completely disoriented.

    “Last time they came swarming in all dark and gloomy, I wondered what was going on. Turns out they’re family. And I kept saying I didn’t know.”

    As her hand stroked or brushed my head, I’m not sure, I lifted my gaze. Last time? I had been with grandmother for three straight days, so when did people come? Instead of answering, grandmother looked deeply into my face and smiled brightly.

    “This time, when he said he was here to pick up his younger brother, I wasn’t sure. But now that I look closely, you do look alike. Sigh. Be grateful that you don’t have to worry about your face and treat your parents well.”

    “…”

    After patting my shoulder one last time, I scratched my nape watching grandmother’s back as she made way for me. The grandmother who had been like a shield was leaving, so I could no longer ignore the intense stares piercing my skin, even without looking…

    She said he was family, my older brother. They came to get me, so why would I avoid them? Nobody pushed me, but I couldn’t hide my awkwardness as I approached him. Honestly, whether he was my stepbrother or not didn’t matter; I just wanted him to take me home.

    I figured it would be okay to sit next to him. My legs were too sore to keep standing. As I gingerly tried sitting on the floor while gauging his reaction, my arm was grabbed and I was pulled into an embrace. The moment my head hit his firm chest, I clenched my teeth to avoid making an undignified sound. I never expected the person sitting here setting the atmosphere would suddenly hug me like this. Flustered, even my fingers stiffened.

    “Seo Seung-won.”

    My thought process came to a halt. I simply froze stiff like a statue from the shock, surprise, and tension. This was the first time anyone had ever hugged me. My head spun. Wondering what intense exercise toned those powerfully squeezing arms around my lower back. No, it was just that his physique looked that incredible.

    I felt something touch the top of my head, but as he slowly stepped back, I quickly forgot about it. This time, unsure what to do with the person in my arms, I fidgeted opening and closing my hands anxiously. When I finally lowered my aimless gaze, I saw my stepbrother’s head. Without touching it, I simply stared.

    “Seo Seung-won…”

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