The soju glasses clinked noisily. Kang Jin-Ho watched his friends boisterously yap away while slowly shaking his head. Ostensibly, this get-together was supposed to celebrate Kang Jin-Ho’s first leave, but it had quickly descended into festive mayhem.
Kang Jin-Ho glanced at Jeong In-Gyu. “Maybe you should stop drinking anymore…?”
“Listen, Jin-Ho…” Jeong In-Gyu muttered in a slurred voice.
“I won’t get another chance to cut loose and drink like this, so just leave me be, okay?”
“…Sure thing,” Kang Jin-Ho replied while sighing under his breath after noticing how unfocused and wasted Jeong In-Gyu’s eyes were. “Has it been that hard?”
“Hah, not really.” Jeong In-Gyu cackled for some reason, then downed the soju shot glass in one go.
Lee Tae-Ho suddenly performed a splendid Italian salute at Jeong In-Gyu as if he had enough of this rubbish. “Listen, man. This punk, right here? Did you know that he found himself a girl in the cram school? He’s totally wasting his time on romance and stuff!”
Feeling less than impressed now, Kang Jin-Ho narrowed his eyes and stared, prompting Jeong In-Gyu to hurriedly wave both of his hands. “N-no, wait! That’s not true. I’m studying hard, for real!”
However, Lee Tae-Ho didn’t give up. “But, I heard you totally bombed your last mock test?”
“…Oh, that.” Jeong In-Gyu chuckled awkwardly and tried to brush it aside. “Nah, that’s because that mock exam’s difficulty was waaay too high. Seriously! My ranking in the cram school hasn’t dropped, you know?”
“Oooh? But I also heard that your ranking got utterly obliterated during that last mock test. Does that mean you have maintained your obliterated ranking?”
“…Will you just shut the hell up?” Jeong In-Gyu desperately yelled back.
However, that only made Lee Tae-Ho cackle loudly while flipping a bird. “Hah, who told you to repeat a year, then?”
Jeong In-Gyu didn’t back off and continued to yell, “It’s common to repeat a year these days! Don’t you know that?!”
“That’s the story for folks with brains, not us. You think guys like you or me will get ‘better’ just because we studied for one extra year? Nah, dude. I’m telling you, we’ll only get worse.”
“…Tsk.” Jeong In-Gyu tutted as if he didn’t have any suitable comeback. He then turned his attention to Park Yu-Min quietly sipping soju next to him. “Maaan, wish I was as talented as Yu-Min here.”
Park Yu-Min blinked his eyes. “…Mm?”
“I’m envious of you, Yu-Min. You don’t have to worry about studying or whatever, and you can just do what you want, right? Even if I study my ass off, I can’t ever become the best in the country like Yu-Min.”
Park Yu-Min shook his head, and his expression grew ever so slightly gloomier. “I just got lucky and won once, you know.”
“No, you shouldn’t say that. You gotta work even harder and win the next one, too! I mean, uh, I’ve been proudly telling everyone in the cram school that you’re my friend, see?”
“Really?” Park Yu-Min was taken aback at that unexpected revelation and stared at Jeong In-Gyu.
Truth be told, Jeong In-Gyu couldn’t really be called Park Yu-Min’s friend. They simply hung out because Kang Jin-Ho looked after Park Yu-Min like family, but other than that? The two of them hadn’t even talked to each other on their own.
Park Yu-Min accepted this situation as his fault, as he had done something wrong in the past, but Jeong In-Gyu had actually been telling everyone they were friends?
Jeong In-Gyu continued to speak in a slurred voice, “So, I’m telling you to try harder! So I can show off some more!”
Oh Min-Jae listening from the side loudly tutted. “You fool! Why would Yu-Min work his butt off for you? Besides, that’s his day job!”
“I’m just saying! That’s all!” Jeong In-Gyu complained, then poured booze into his empty glass and dumped it into his mouth.
“Self-pouring out of pity, eh?” Oh Min-Tae groaned loudly.
“It’s fine. Fine, I tell ya!” Jeong In-Gyu replied in a more inebriated voice.
Kang Jin-Ho couldn’t watch anymore as his brows furrowed deeply. “That’s enough, In-Gyu.”
“I said, it’s fine. Really!”
Kang Jin-Ho was about to say something, but Park Yu-Min quickly gave him a look that said, ‘don’t!’ So, Kang Jin-Ho could only nod in silence while drinking soju. “Hmm…”
Jeong In-Gyu suddenly asked, “Hey, dude. How is army life treating you?”
“It’s not bad.” Kang Jin-Ho slightly shrugged his shoulders.
Oh Min-Jae lightly rebuked Jeong In-Gyu for believing that reply. “You think you can get a sane reply from Jin-Ho? Do I have to remind you that our Jin-Ho spent his entire high school years playing around, and then, when the final exams were around the corner, he went, ‘Oh, should I start studying a bit now?’ and ended up in Jaegyeong Uni?”
“…Well, that’s true.”
“That’s right. Ask Jin-Ho if studying is hard. He’ll probably tell you it’s a cakewalk for him.”
Kang Jin-Ho was left speechless by that declaration. He realized that he couldn’t think of any other replies besides what Oh Min-Jae had just said.
Oh Min-Jae continued, “Listen to me, In-Gyu. Different people have different capabilities, know what I mean? You shouldn’t ask Jin-Ho about stuff like that. There’s nothing he can’t do in this world, after all.”
Kang Jin-Ho’s expression hardened slightly at that. However, it wasn’t because Oh Min-Jae’s words had soured his mood. That kid didn’t say that out of malice, after all. It was just that a difficult hurdle blocking his path made him feel a little prickly at the moment.
“…Hey, guys. Let’s have another toast.” Kang Jin-Ho raised his glass, hoping to get rid of this awkward atmosphere. “Cheers!”
Another round of alcohol intake was the ticket to greatly improve everyone’s mood. Even though just over a couple of months had passed since their graduation from high school, everyone was already starting to display signs of having difficulties in their new lives. Maybe that was the reason why? These friends, meeting up for the first time in a while, lost themselves in having fun by occasionally whining and teasing each other, among other things.
“Here’s to Jeong In-Gyu! Hoping that the third time will be the charm!”
It seemed everyone here knew Jeong In-Gyu was having the hardest time out of them all, so they paid him the most attention.
Jeong In-Gyu suddenly asked Kang Jin-Ho with a serious face, “…Jin-Ho, is there any easier way to study?”
“Concentrate. That will help.”
“I’m asking you because I can’t concentrate.”
“…You can’t?” Kang Jin-Ho tilted his head in confusion.
Oh Min-Jae groaned and shook his head. “In-Gyu, don’t be stupid, and just ask your cram school teacher instead. What you’re doing is the same as asking Einstein arithmetic questions.”
“I guess you’re right.” Jeong In-Gyu made a despondent face as if he had recognized his mistake, then began knocking back more booze. He glanced at his friends and asked another question, “Hey, how is life in a university? Is it as good as they say?”
That one question got the complaint train rolling almost immediately.
“People kept telling us we’ll just play all day long in universities, didn’t they? That was a load of bullsh*t, man. Imagine this; there are no empty chairs in the campus library!”
Oh Min-Jae nodded animatedly. “Yeah! And everyone hardly ever drinks there, too! Everyone’s so bloody busy studying and earning credits, you know? A girl in my department is already preparing to earn her tax accountant license by studying the tax code!”
Lee Tae-Ho tutted. “That’s nothing, dude. This kid in our department had already earned the AICPA certification!”
Oh Min-Jae asked in a puzzled voice. “Huh? What’s that?”
“AICPA? It’s the Yankee tax accountant.”
“Hiiieek?” Oh Min-Jae recoiled in terror after learning that some people were prepared to sell their souls to succeed in life. “Holy cow! Just what the hell is up with those people?”
Lee Tae-Ho cried out proudly, “Well, they sure are amazing, but let’s be honest here. There’s no reason for us to cower before them!”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“They ain’t the only people in history to acquire AICPA certificates, am I right?! Besides, we have Yu-Min with us! They will all cower before the name of mighty Park Yu-Min!”
“Yeah, you’re right!”
Park Yu-Min could only smile awkwardly while listening to his friends yapping away.
Lee Tae-Ho suddenly perked up. “By the way, what’s Se-Yeon doing these days?”
Oh Min-Jae tilted his head. “You mean, Han Se-Yeon?”
Everyone’s attention suddenly gathered on Kang Jin-Ho.
“Dunno,” Kang Jin-Ho replied disinterestedly, scattering the gathered attention.
“Wowsers. That guy’s hopeless.”
“Yup, he’s one of a kind. Definitely.”
Oh Min-Jae and Lee Tae-Ho nodded sagely while looking at each other. Their common sense was simply inadequate to fully comprehend the person named Kang Jin-Ho. He hadn’t been like this in the past, but that damned car accident seemed to have transformed him into someone else—a total stranger, even.
“Sheesh. Isn’t your indifference a bit too much?”
Kang Jin-Ho sensed that the chatter was suddenly flowing in the direction of criticism over his conduct, so he coughed to clear his throat and quickly raised his glass. “How about another toast?”
“Holy cow, look at him trying to change the topic!”
“Looks like he learned something useful in the army, no?”
Kang Jin-Ho’s mouth itched, but he just couldn’t think of anything to say to defend himself.
“Hey, dude. Take care, alright?”
“Yeah. You, too.”
Oh Min-Jae and Lee Tae-Ho waved their hands while supporting Jeong In-Gyu, who was clearly too wasted to even stand straight. They volunteered for this job as their homes were roughly in the same direction from the pub.
Jeong In-Gyu slurred some words out. “H-how about… fourth… round…”
“Fourth round, my foot!”
Oh Min-Jae and Lee Tae-Ho glared murderously at Jeong-In-Gyu.
However, Jeong In-Gyu still raised his voice in protest. “Argh, I don’t wanna go home yet!”
“Ignore this fool, and let’s quickly grab a taxi!”
Oh Min-Jae and Lee Tae-Ho completely disregarded what Jeong In-Gyu was saying. They hailed a cab, forcibly dumped the reticent Jeong In-Gyu in the backseat, then yelled back at Kang Jin-Ho. “Hey, Jin-Ho! We gotta have one more get-together before you go back, okay?!”
“Got it.” Kang Jin-Ho nodded.
The two smirked before climbing into the waiting taxi. The car drove off, leaving Park Yu-Min and Kang Jin-Ho behind as they watched their friends disappear into the distance.
Kang Jin-Ho glanced at Park Yu-Min. “Are you taking a taxi as well?”
“After I sober up a bit first…” Park Yu-Min muttered while stumbling his way toward the staircase of a corner building. Unlike Kang Jin-Ho, his alcohol tolerance was quite low, so drinking with his friends made him feel very dizzy. After plopping down on the steps, he rubbed his face. “The kids will be worried if I go home like this.”
“I guess you’re right.” Kang Jin-Ho sat down next to him, then mouthed a cigarette. “…It’s about time you return to your team, no?”
“Well, yeah. But…” Park Yu-Min muttered as a worried look filled his expression.
Even a few days of downtime would make it difficult for a pro gamer to catch up to their peers in this field. Yet, Park Yu-Min hadn’t practiced at all for over a month now. No wonder he was deeply worried.
His disability meant other people had directly ignored and underestimated him his entire life. However, for the first time in his life, he had found something he was good at and even achieved some level of success. Therefore, he was considerably attached to the pro gaming scene.
However, everything he had built up until now was gradually crumbling right before his eyes. The level of anxiety Park Yu-Min was feeling right now must be unimaginable.
Park Yu-Min sighed. “How wonderful would it be if we could just do whatever we want all the time?”
“Yu-Min, you need to prioritize your own life first.”
“You’re right. But…”
Kang Jin-Ho liked this part about Park Yu-Min. Even if he found other people’s opinions disagreeable, he wouldn’t start his reply with a rebuttal. He would listen and accept what should be accepted first, then gradually voice his own opinion on the matter. That was Park Yu-Min’s style—his characteristic.
“I know you’re right, Jin-Ho. I know I shouldn’t be like this, stuck and going nowhere fast. I sometimes wake up screaming at night, too. This one time, I had a dream about going back to the team’s practice hall and getting absolutely destroyed by a newbie trainee.”
“Even though I’ve been trying to pretend everything is okay, I… I guess I’m lowkey worried, after all. But, what can I do?”
“Mm…” Kang Jin-Ho turned his head and glanced at Park Yu-Min. That ‘composed’ expression on Park Yu-Min’s face reminded him of the orphanage’s director, Sister Yi, for some reason. Despite not sharing a drop of blood, it would be safe to say Park Yu-Min’s ‘real’ parent was none other than the director. At least, that was what Kang Jin-Ho felt.
And yet… almost literally overnight, a person Park Yu-Min thought of as his parent was teetering on the edge of life and death while his younger siblings were in danger of getting abandoned without learning about a parent’s warmth. In this situation, what could Park Yu-Min possibly do?
“Even so, I can’t abandon my siblings, you know?”
“Yes, I know.” Kang Jin-Ho nodded, knowing that even he would have trouble deciding if he was in Park Yu-Min’s shoes.
“I really want to be successful. I want to make more money, stand even taller than before, and tell other people, ‘You see? Look at how successful I am now.’ But… Whenever I think about what abandoning the orphanage and pursuing my dream would mean to me, I…” Park Yu-Min sighed deeply. “I’m scared that one day I’d wake up and realize that everything I’ve achieved so far had been for naught.”
Should Kang Jin-Ho say that his friend lacked willpower, or he was too caring for his own good? Far too many people out there were willing to discard their own families in pursuit of wealth and honor. In a world filled with such people, Park Yu-Min was just too thoughtful, too sensitive to survive the headwinds.
Kang Jin-Ho suddenly felt his chest tighten after imagining how tough it must have been for Park Yu-Min to deal with various challenging situations by himself before they became friends. Park Yu-Min could have given his friend a call and unloaded his heavy heart onto him and whined, yet he hadn’t done that. He silently endured everything and continued to live his life. Kang Jin-Ho thought his friend was praiseworthy and quite remarkable in that regard.
Kang Jin-Ho spoke in a reassuring tone, “It’ll only get better, Yu-Min.”
“You’ll be alright.”
“Huh…” Park Yu-Min didn’t say anything and simply stared at the dark skies up above. The night sky with not a single visible star was a familiar sight, yet it also felt frustratingly dark and closed-off. “…Yeah, I guess so.”
Maybe, he wanted to hear those reassuring words more than anything else. Rather than perfect plans or lifelines meant to resolve the current situation, those simple words of reassurance were what Park Yu-Min probably needed the most right now.
And so, Park Yu-Minquietly muttered, “…Yeah. I’ll be alright.”
Kang Jin-Ho and Park Yu-Min stopped talking there and let the silence descend on them. They sat there and quietly stared at the night skies as the pale blue-gray of the breaking dawn gradually dyed the horizon before the radiance of the crimson sunrise announced the arrival of a new day.
1. The original text said ‘four months since the graduation’. We took the liberty to change it to a couple of months since Jin-Ho was in the army for four months, so it was definitely over four months since they graduated. ☜
2. AICPA is an abbreviation of “American Institute of Certified Public Accountants”. ☜