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    26 years old

    The factory where I worked was on the outskirts of Gyeonggi Province. In the few years I’ve been there, I could count the times I came out to Seoul’s bustling districts on one hand. My friends and I mostly met in the neighborhood when they went home on weekends.

    Places like the popular University Street or the multiplex shopping malls they frequented felt unfamiliar to me. On a hot July summer day, sweating profusely in a suit, I got off at City Hall Station.

    Inside my suit was a thick envelope of congratulatory money that the factory manager had generously given me, and in my other hand, I held a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat. It was the wedding day of the factory owner’s eldest son, and everyone was melting in the heat, so I had planned to rest on weekends. But as one of the younger ones, I was left with the task.

    Exit 4.

    I wandered around underground, looking for the exit. There were unusually many people bustling around, enough to make you dizzy, but I figured it must always be like this and found my way out. As soon as I stepped outside, I jumped.

    A food truck was lined up along the street. In front of it were police officers sitting in a line. What’s going on, a protest? I silently wished them well as I passed through them drenched in sweat. Two years would pass quickly; just hold out a bit longer.

    The young men in their early twenties, clearly exhausted, just slumped their shoulders without a word. Still, it was probably better than running around in the sweltering sun using gear to block a demonstration. Checking my watch, I hurried towards the wedding hall. It was up to me to do the running.

    This ceremony was taking much longer than the ones I’d heard would end in 20 or 30 minutes. Perhaps it was because it was a place where meals were served during weddings, but the wedding that started at 6 p.m. didn’t finish until after 7 p.m. When I left, the head office director I met there whispered to me.

    “The bride isn’t very pretty.”

    I laughed and encouraged him to say it louder.

    “If you get fired from the company, I’ll take your place.”

    He mimed choking my throat and made an unlikely threat.

    “Don’t make me laugh. Even if you work hard, you can’t do it because you only have a high school diploma.”

    He began to realize how awkward he was after saying that. I responded seriously to him.

    “No, I can do it.”

    “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I can do it… by seducing the CEO with my charm?”

    “What? Seduce? Want to break your neck?”

    He grabbed my throat again. Then he took me to a bar in Jongno. Since we’d come to the city, I decided to drink with him until the second party.

    Of course, I followed him because he paid. I couldn’t afford to buy drinks for a pretty bride.

    The bar we entered was inside an alley, so I didn’t know what was happening outside while I was drinking. So when we came out around 11 o’clock, we couldn’t help but be surprised to see what had happened on the street.

    The street was full of people. Flags raised high in places, and loud songs spread around. Excuses about busy life made me not interested in current affairs. More important than becoming a president or a member of the National Assembly was paying off the bank’s interest for this month.

    So I felt strange looking at many people who gathered for something. I tried to go to the place where the sound came from, but I was stopped by the police blocking the way. In front of them, the people who seemed to be demonstrators were making complaints and clearing the way.

    It seemed like things might escalate into a physical fight with the voices rising so high and people gathering. Accordingly, police officers with shields and batons pushed them back to restrain them. Just as the situation seemed about to get serious, someone within the police ranks ordered,

    “Make way.”

    The order dropped, and the path abruptly opened up. Both those inside and outside swiftly moved, clearing the way. I stood nearby, focusing on one spot.

    A person without riot gear spoke into a walkie-talkie. The one who had given orders to the police a while ago was tall enough to stand out, and for some reason, seemed familiar.

    Where had I seen him before? I pondered for a while, unable to take my eyes off him. Despite the darkness, his sweat-soaked shirt was distinct. A deeply tanned face, lips muttering indifferently. Ah, the air conditioner. Memories from several years ago vividly came to mind.

    He wore a police academy uniform back then, looking somewhat youthful. His face, apart from the shorter hair now, seemed the same, yet the feeling was different. Perhaps because of the way he commanded among the officers, he seemed like he had become an adult.

    Already higher up than me, yet striving for even greater heights. He removed the walkie-talkie from his mouth and scanned the surroundings. His gaze turned towards where I stood. For some reason, my heart thumped loudly once.

    But his scanning glance passed me by meaninglessly. In the crowd, he wouldn’t recognize me. No, even if we were alone, he wouldn’t recognize me. Yet why did I remember? Surely… I must be a genius. When I reached a hopeful conclusion, his commanding voice was heard again.

    “Move.”

    With a short command, the police officers quickly found their positions and began to move. Without realizing it, I approached them. Just a moment, the words swirled in my mouth, but the tall student from the police academy pushed through their ranks and disappeared from my sight.

    On a damp summer night. When I came to my senses, I found a handkerchief in my hand that I had intended to give to him. But it was good that I didn’t give it. If a stranger received a handkerchief, they might suspect and hold onto me instead. Turning my body towards the bus stop, I tucked the handkerchief into my pocket, muttering to hide my embarrassment.

    “He’s not my type anyway.”

    29 years old

    Record-breaking highest temperatures for consecutive days.

    33 degrees, 35 degrees, 36.4 degrees.

    The scorching heat of July once again dominated the news. As far as I remember, July was this hot about six years ago. Back then, not a drop of rain fell in July, and the ground dried up like a salt flat.

    What was hotter back then was working with my uncle to install air conditioners. Until I got a job, I installed air conditioners four to five places a day for the entire month of July.

    One of the hottest years of my life. This year isn’t any different from then, but the situation is reversed.

    I was in a place where the air conditioner came out cool every morning. I go to the nearby municipal library every morning at 6:30 with a lunchbox. I quit my well-paying job and started studying ten years later than others.

    That’s right. I was preparing for college entrance exams.

    Now, as I approach my thirties and move into a stable life, to turn around and look back. I didn’t even know I would be like this.

    I thought I would continue to work at the same job in the factory for 30 to 40 years as long as I wasn’t fired, making money, buying a house, setting up a retirement plan for my parents, and getting my younger sister married. However, my younger sister got married suddenly last year. Of course, I was going to give her a wedding gift, but she entered her boyfriend’s house with a little money she earned herself.

    One of the biggest plans I believed I would spend a lot of money in my life disappeared like that. And earlier this year, my father, who had been waging a boring lawsuit for several years, solved his debt problem and suddenly went down to the countryside.

    Originally, my grandfather was doing an orchard in my father’s hometown, but he gave away the land originally owned by my father. At first, I was worried whether the person who had never planted a field could do it. But what? Rather, my father and mother became more intimate and healthy there.

    It makes money in farming, but since most of the land is rented out and not worked directly, it seemed to be a leisurely pace. Moreover, as he went down, he completely gave me the lease deposit of the house in Seoul.

    In my life, I believed I had to pour out money for my family, but the reality disappeared in an instant. Now that I have a lot of money and spend money entirely for myself, I didn’t know what to do first.

    I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. Then I quit the company at the end of May. When I said I was going to study and go to university, everyone recommended cyber universities or broadcasting universities.

    “A lot of people go to university while working at a company. Why quit your job?”

    “How expensive is tuition these days? When I graduate, how old will I be, exactly? I might end up back in a factory if I can’t find a job.”

    Their worries might be valid. Still, for the first time, I just wanted to try doing things my way. To learn something properly.

    And now, it’s been about a month and a half since I started going to the library. Except for weekends, I leave home at 6 in the morning and return at 10 in the evening. Spending more than a month at the library, I’ve even found my regular seat and become familiar with the lady at the snack bar.

    I bought a cheap laptop and listen to video lectures, often dozing off, even sipping vending machine coffee, and sometimes taking a short walk around the library. It’s boring, but I’m holding up pretty well.

    The library is an extremely quiet place, so a month feels like one day. Many people come and go, but it’s hard to hear their voices. There are no particularly noticeable events. Just another day among the days that flow by. It was the third hottest day on record in July outside.

    I was studying in Study Room 3, which has desks without partitions, just like usual. Just after lunch, half-dozing while watching video lectures, suddenly a loud noise rang out.

    “Ahh!”

    Startled, I took out my earphones and looked up. A boy who looked like a middle school student across from me stood there with a pale face.

    “Oh no, my bag.”

    His friend who stood behind him asked in surprise, “Your bag’s gone? Look carefully.”

    Although his friend asked, I could see there was no bag on the boy’s desk. There were workbooks and pencil cases on the desk, but no bag. The boy had shouted loudly in the quiet library, but no one said anything. He continued to repeat, “Oh no,” almost on the verge of tears.

    “It’s not about the bag. My iPad was in it.”

    “What?!”

    His friend exclaimed louder. But again, no one reacted. Instead, those who heard also wanted to shout, “What?!” An iPad.

    With a confused voice, the boy asked the people in Study Room 3. “Did anyone see someone take my bag? It was a blue bag that was here. Did anyone see it?” Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes.

    When everyone shook their heads, the boy burst into tears. I hesitated as I watched him. Since I eat lunch early at 11 to avoid the crowded cafeteria, I was studying when everyone else went for lunch at 12.

    However, with earphones on, listening to video lectures, I couldn’t look around. Still, when I paused the lecture to listen repeatedly, I had seen someone wandering around opposite me. Normally, people walk straight and sit down, but that person seemed to come and go, catching my attention.

    Thinking back now, I wondered if that person could have been the thief, but I hadn’t actually seen them steal anything, so I wasn’t sure. It might just be wrong to catch a live person. So I was hesitant to alert anyone, but the boy’s eyes turned red and tears finally showed. Sobbing, he trembled, shaking his shoulder as he went outside with a friend.

    “I’m dead when I get home. What should I do?”

    As the boy went out, a few people checked if there was anything missing from their bag. I got up and followed the boy. With trembling hands, he tried to call somewhere with his phone.

    “Who should I call? Report to the police.”

    “My uncle, sob, I’m going to call my uncle.”

    “Yes, your uncle? Oh, that…”

    The friend was about to say something but stopped when he saw me approaching. “What happened?” I asked, but it wasn’t much help. The boy was grateful and bowed his head slightly.

    Feeling like the boy was inexperienced, I returned to my seat. Study Room 3, which had been bustling, returned to normal after a brief commotion. Occasionally, the sounds of sharp pencils and the rustling of paper flipping were heard, as if asking when there had been any such events.

    I finished watching one video lecture and picked up a dictionary to review my weakest English. Memorizing is truly a boring task. Still, with determination to finish today’s quota, I filled a sheet full of alphabets with my trusty multipen.

    As I’m getting older and preparing for the college entrance exam, the boss came all the way to the kitchen where I handle odd jobs and deliberately gave me a pen. While the pen tends to leak a lot, that’s its only downside.

    My arm was sore from writing, and when I checked the clock, two hours had flown by. Feeling a bit hungry, should I go buy some milk? Just as I was pondering this, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned my head and there was a boy standing next to me, still with traces of luck on his face. He called out, “Can you check the CCTV?”

    “I only saw briefly, so I’m not sure.”

    I replied and looked into Study Room 3. Did they have CCTV there? While other places might not, Study Room 3 had a capacity of only 30-40 people and laptops were allowed, so there were no CCTV cameras.

    It seemed the boy had caught on to my thoughts as he led me downstairs. He said they found the bag in the second-floor restroom trash can, but the iPad was missing. So, they checked the second-floor hallway CCTV around the time the bag went missing.

    The boy seemed to expect me to find the culprit, but honestly, I wasn’t confident. Could I really figure it out just by looking? I followed the boy to the management office on the first floor, feeling anxious.

    As soon as I entered, the first person I saw was a tall man with a sturdy build. He was looking at the monitor shown by the library manager, then turned his head at the boy’s call.

    “Uncle, they brought him.”

    So, he’s called Uncle, I thought as I faced him without thinking. I was about to nod politely, but unexpectedly, I hesitated.

    Huh? His face seems familiar. Where have I seen him before? I found myself staring at him unintentionally. The problem was, he was staring right back at me. Whether I remembered him or not, I should probably avoid eye contact at this point, but I strangely couldn’t look away.

    “Uncle, can I show you this screen?”

    At the boy’s words, he turned his head. Without realizing it, I sighed inwardly in relief. Why was I feeling so nervous?

    “You saw the person who stole my cousin’s bag?”

    “I didn’t see the actual theft, just someone loitering nearby.”

    After replying, I examined the CCTV footage the boy showed me. Despite its poor quality in black and white, I focused intently, feeling another wave of tension. Throughout the time I watched the monitor, I felt him staring at me. If we couldn’t find the culprit, would he just sit still?

    “Oh? Wait a moment.”

    Maybe I really am a genius. At first glance, I didn’t recognize anyone, but I managed to identify the person on the monitor by pointing with my finger and turning my head.

    “It’s this person.”

    With a triumphant smile as if to say ‘Did I do well?’, I turned around, but the only one who responded was the boy. The uncle just stared at me, not at the monitor. And then I remembered. I had met him on two very hot summer days.

    “Uncle, can you catch him? Right? You’re the strong gang leader.”

    Swish. Without a word, a canned drink was pushed in front of me. I bowed my head in gratitude, and the student who became a police officer sat next to me. It was so hot that there were hardly any people on the bench. However, we couldn’t talk inside the library, so we had to come here even though it was hot.

    The drink in my hand quickly felt damp like sweat. I opened the can with a clink and took a sip. He also held the drink in his hand, but didn’t drink it. After a while of silence, I couldn’t help but speak first.

    “If you need any testimony or help, please contact me.”

    Yes, he replied, but didn’t ask for my contact information. I felt like I had been overly polite for no reason and felt awkward. I quickly finished the drink and took a shot of what was left. Then, as I tried to get up from my seat, he handed me his drink.

    “Have this too.”

    Should I shoot this one too?

    “It’s okay. It seems hot, so please drink it. On a day like this, you should hydrate… Oops.”

    I tried to throw away the drink can, but I dropped the pen I had put in my shirt pocket on the floor. Fortunately, the pen was multipen, so it didn’t roll much and stopped. Right in front of his feet.

    I tried to pick it up, but he handed me the pen first. Then he reached out to hand it over. I reached out to receive it too. But it didn’t reach my hand. It was something he made while reaching out his arm. Why would you do that, I wondered when I looked at the pen and the pen was pierced.

    What’s in the pen… Oh! I remembered the Gaeba Store name written on the pen. Of course, it’s not openly written Gaeba, but my heart raced for no reason. I talked nonsense about being anxious even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

    “Haha, the pen is a multipen, right?”

    I reached out my hand again asking for it, but he still didn’t give it to me and now he was looking at me. But his gaze was somewhat peculiar. Once again, I found myself talking unnecessarily.

    “I got it from my part-time job, so I’m not sure why is it a multipen.”

    “Do you work part-time here?”

    “Yes, only on weekends.”

    Wouldn’t it look odd for someone my age to be working part-time? Thankfully, he handed me the pen. Then, he took out his phone and asked seriously,

    “Could you give me your phone number?”

    “First, wash the fruits received today.”

    Upon the kitchen manager’s instruction, I took out the fruits from the refrigerator. The store opens at 5 o’clock, but it gets busy after 9 PM when customers start coming in.

    Still, occasionally people come early for meals, keeping the kitchen staff busy. I washed each fruit that would be served as snacks tonight and placed them in a basket. Someone called me from the kitchen entrance. When I turned around, the boss gestured for me to come out.

    “Why are you doing that?”

    “Just come out for a moment.”

    He pushed me out to the store inside and, after looking back, instructed me again.

    “You can go in now.”

    “Hey, what’s going on?”

    “Yeah, just something like that.”

    The boss smiled strangely and pushed my back, and I went back to the kitchen. As I went in, I turned my head, and I saw the boss laughing and approaching the person sitting at the counter. The shape of his mouth was like this.

    ‘Is that right?’

    What is right? But I couldn’t see the person at the counter well, so I didn’t care and went back to the kitchen. Tomorrow is Monday. Libraries rest twice a month, and there is no pressure to work.

    Monday is a day off, and on Tuesday, I went back to the library. I put my luggage on the seat and started studying. In the morning, I mainly review, so I study while listening to the radio. I’m not sleepy in the morning, but it’s close to 11, so I’m already hungry.

    Should I go a little early and eat? I thought and looked up at the clock on the wall. And I was surprised. There was a familiar face on the opposite side. The nephew of the boy.

    He had put a book on the desk and was reading. What? Why are you in front of me? Are you coming to catch the culprit? While wondering about all this, he raised his head when he felt my gaze. Unlike me who was surprised, he asked me, pretending nothing was strange.

    “Are you going to eat?”

    A yellow noodle strand held on the chopsticks was sucked into my mouth. I was hungry, but I was murmuring in front of the ramen. The uncle who came down with me like a person who skipped several meals emptied his cup ramen faster than the cooking time. After emptying the soup, he muttered, looking bewildered.

    “I stayed up all night last night.”

    “Because of work?”

    He nodded. It was a simple answer, but it looked cool to me as if a knight was waving a sword. I am not his type either. Damned eyes, wake up.

    “If you’re the head of the gang, you must be very busy.”

    “Yes.”

    But why are you here? I waited for an explanation, but he changed the subject and asked me.

    “Are you preparing for the college entrance exam? I saw the book you were studying earlier.”

    “Yes. I’m a bit late, but I’m trying to get into university now.”

    “Have you decided on a major?”

    “I have a rough idea, but I need to see my test scores.”

    “Do you have a target university in mind?”

    “I need to see my scores for that too…”

    The original word for multipen used here was 세모; I wasn’t sure about the meaning but I figured it would be a multipen with different ink rather than a normal pen.

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