Chapter 11.1

In his room, Hyun-seong let out a sigh of relief as he loosened his school uniform tie. Though he’d faced his father’s wrath a few times before, today, the tension in the air felt particularly thick.

Ever since his preschool days, his father, Min-sik, had imposed countless demands on him, stripping away his childish innocence and confining him to the circle of those of similar social status. Now, as a second-year high school student, Hyun-seong found himself trapped under his father’s strict rules, with little room to maneuver. Despite yearning for freedom, he chose to endure it all alone.

In the privacy of his room, he finally shed his navy jacket and sank heavily onto the edge of his bed. The emotions inside him were a turbulent storm, yet he suppressed his sense of injustice and anger, keeping it all hidden. He wondered if holding on a little longer might eventually lead to a better life. But was it even possible? He couldn’t be certain.

The taste of blood lingered on his tongue, leaving a bitter, metallic taste. Feeling suffocated by it all, he was about to remove his school vest when a cautious knock at the door disrupted his thoughts.

“Come in,” he called out, already knowing who it was. There was only one person in this household who knocked before entering his room.

The door creaked open, and Mrs. Jang stepped into the room, cradling an ice pack and a soft towel. Aged just beyond fifty, she was the ever-present live-in housekeeper, overseeing all the household chores and errands. For a good seven years, she had called the small room on the first floor her home.

“Student Hyun-seong, are you alright? Oh my… why do you look so uncomfortable today? Look at your swollen cheek,” she expressed her concern.

“I’m fine,” came his stoic response.

“You don’t seem fine at all… really,” Mrs. Jang insisted, her heart heavy with worry. How could parents be so unyielding in their cruelty? Min-sik and In-hwa, both his flesh and blood, seemed heartless beyond comprehension.

Above all, she pitied Hyun-seong, who had come to grasp the harshness of reality at such a tender age. Despite the evident pain he bore, he stubbornly insisted on being okay, holding it all within.

There had been a time when he wasn’t like this, but somewhere along the way, he chose to suffer in silence, carrying the burden of hardships alone.

Mrs. Jang couldn’t suppress a weary sigh as she delicately wrapped the ice pack in a pristine white towel. With gentle care, she pressed it against his reddened cheek. He flinched briefly as the frigid cold made contact, but he remained stoic thereafter.

“You don’t have to do this. It’ll get better in a few days,” he mumbled.

“By tomorrow morning, your face will be completely swollen. You don’t understand… even this small gesture can help reduce the swelling,” she explained.

“Thank you, Auntie,” Hyun-seong said, addressing Mrs. Jang with an endearing term. It was an awkward title for her since she was usually referred to as “Mrs. Jang ajumma” or sometimes less politely as “Hey, you!” Yet, she accepted it, imagining what it would be like if she had a nephew of her own, one who would be around Hyun-seong’s age now. It didn’t feel too difficult to embrace.

“By the way, what brought on this discomfort today? It’s not like Hyun-seong did anything wrong… Was your father simply in a foul mood?” she inquired, genuinely curious.

“I got a Grade 2 on the mock exam,” he admitted.

“A Grade 2? Isn’t that excellent? I recall our son used to receive Grades 7 or 8 on his mock exams,” Mrs. Jang reminisced, her mind drifting back to her distant memories of her son. Now an adult and barely in contact with her, he lacked the academic prowess that Hyun-seong possessed.

Though she couldn’t afford private academies or tutors like other parents, she had never imposed relentless studying on her child. As those recollections resurfaced, a bitter ache settled within her heart.

“Perhaps this test was a bit challenging. But don’t, you’re not even in your senior year yet, and there will be many more chances to excel. Hyun-seong, you’re brilliant, and you’ll be just fine,” Mrs. Jang tried to offer her awkward yet sincere comfort.

“It wasn’t that difficult,” he replied.

“Then did you make any mistakes? It’s possible. Nowadays, they say it’s not just about writing the answers on the test paper, but something like marking or whatever,” she mused, trying to find a reasonable explanation for his result. How could one always be a top student, after all?

As she pondered this, Hyun-seong gently took the ice pack from her hands. Concerned, she offered to do it for him, but he declined, stating that the cold sensation felt good. 

I completed all the questions within the time limit. All my answers were correct. If nothing unexpected happened, I would have scored the same as before,” Hyun-seong muttered.

“Huh? You completed all of it? But why did you get a Grade 2?”

Hyun-seong pressed the ice pack wrapped in a towel against his own cheek. The frigid cold spread across his skin, bringing relief to the pain. Lost in thought, he stared into the distance and uttered a single sentence.

“I wanted to check.”

“Check?” Mrs. Jang repeated.

A flicker of intense doubt appeared in Hyun-seong’s eyes. He deliberately allowed himself to get three questions wrong, despite being capable of a perfect score, simply to observe his parents’ reaction.



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