Chapter 17: Chapter (1)
Though his eyes were open, his surroundings were still dark, and he couldn’t make out the silhouettes of anything around him. Having had a similar experience a year ago, the boy realized he had collapsed. He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t muster the strength to do so. He clenched his jaw and tried his hardest to propel himself up using arms, and the strain caused an involuntary groan to escape his lips.
Where was he? He remembered that he was in the mountain with Myeong-su, and they were soaking wet from the rain. And then? Myeong-su had falled down, and he…
He remembered receiving quite a big hit on the back, and indeed, he did feel a dull throbbing there. But for now, it was important that he get a grip of his surroundings, so he got up from the chair he had been resting on, but he still couldn’t see anything. He reached out with his hands in an attempt to grab something, anything, but all he could feel was the chair. He took one step, then another, tentatively feeling around in case he bumped against something. Then he felt it. Something that felt much like a wall, and the cool, rough feel of wood. A feel that was very familiar to the boy.
He placed one of his hands on the wall for support as he continued to feel around with his other, hoping desperately to feel something he could make out the shape of. The wall ended abruptly, at a right angle, and the boy adjusted his stance, carefully stepping sideways to follow the wall. Then there was a new wall, with a new feel to it. While the previous wall had been lined up horizontally, this new wall was vertical. Instinctively, the boy knew this was no wall at all. It was a door. With a small push, he realized the door opened out. Light flooded in through the small crack he had made, and he stepped outside.
It was still dark everywhere, but the darkness was slowly seeping out of the sky. It was before daybreak, and the sky was filled with hues of purple and navy. It was breathtaking and mysterious, and so vast, more so than the eye could possible perceive. During his year in the other world, he had never seen a sky such as this. There were no tall buildings, no messy electrical lines to obscure it. This was the sky in its full glory, undisturbed, and infinitely vast.
The view in front of him was also just as familiar, just as nostalgic. Houses made of logs and rooves filled in with cedar bark. The alleys between the houses and the weeds poking up from the ground. Pits in the undressed dirt roads. Boulders that not even the adults could lift and were thus left to act as a playground. And the flowers, bowing their heads from the weight of the morning dew, and the sparse trees, offering their shade when needed.
He was at the peasant town.
The boy bit his lip and turned around. The house he had stepped out of took in the faint light and revealed its interior to him. A table and chair, and the decorations on the walls.
“Mom…” He let out in a whimper, unable to stop himself. Then he realized what he had said. Mom. His mom. “Mom? Mom!!”
The boy ran back in the house, but within the thick veil of darkness, there was no sign of his mother. Not in the house, nor in the room. A chill took over the house, more biting than the morning air outside.
In no time, the sun rose, and everything became bright. By this time, diligent people would have been busy making breakfast or getting ready for their commute, but the peasant town was quiet, just like it was one year ago. The boy sat outside of his house, leaning against the wall, his face a mess of tears and snot. He had no idea how he came back or how much time had passed since he arrived. All he knew was that everything was still just as incomprehensible and unclear as it had always been.
The boy stood up, wiping his eyes with his arm, and walked back into the house. He wanted to “investigate” while it was bright out. Though it had only been for one year, he now had experience studying abroad(?) and he was smarter now. He had every intention of putting his knowledge to the test through practical application. One year ago, he had panicked at the idea that his mother had disappeared, but now was the time to use his head. Through his investigation, he had obtained a few clues.
First. Not much dust had settled in the house at all. If the house had been unused after he had left one year ago, then there was no way for the table to be so clean. Still, there was no sign that anyone had cleaned it. If there had been someone to clean off the dust, they surely would have picked up that bundle of herbs that had fallen on the floor.
Second. “Everything’s the same,” he noted aloud. Indeed, he had deduced that the house was in the same condition as a year ago, meaning it was in the same state as when he had left, but the house he was looking at now was the house he was used to seeing. The few clothes hanging in the room were the same and the dishes were neatly piled next to the sink. Everything in the house was just as it would be if the three of them had cleaned up the night before.
Third. The boy had gone looking inside the other houses just in case and saw that no one was there. The other houses were also in pristine condition, and all the clothes and necessities were in their place.
“Only the people disappeared.”
Which raised another question. Why? Did the city knights come take them? He remembered the lady and man next door having a conversation about a similar topic.
“I mean, there’s nothing to take here. What if they just grab every single one of us and sell us as slaves?”
“Don’t even say anything close to that! You’ll curse us all.”
“I’m just saying. If we get caught, all we can do is run again.”
The boy shook his head and gathered his thoughts again. ‘If they were running away, there would be signs of leaving the town in a hurry. There’s no way they escaped with just the clothes on their backs.’ At the very least, wouldn’t they have taken some blankets to retain body heat? Having just had an experience with heat loss, the boy drew a rather reasonable conclusion. Yet at the end of all this deducing, the only true conclusion he could come to was that he “didn’t know.” He didn’t know why they disappeared, and he didn’t know where they went. Just in case, he kept walking around the town, but all he could see was that the town looked like a sort of museum, perfectly still, with only the people gone.
When the sun had reached its peak, the boy made his way back to his house. That’s when he felt the hunger kicking in. Thinking of it, he hadn’t eaten anything since he went up the mountain. He honestly had no idea how long he had been passed out for, but he had spent all of this world’s morning wandering around without eating. He remembered the bread he saw during his investigation earlier and took it out of the kitchen cabinet. Outwardly, it looked good to eat. He broke off a small piece to try and found it to be rather good. This world didn’t have things such as refrigerators to keep food fresh, which was why food was eaten right away rather than stored for later. In other words, not much time had passed since the boy had been sent to the other world. There were other ingredients in the cabinet, but since he didn’t know how to cook, they might as well have been decorations to him.
Looking around now, the boy realized just how far behind his world was compared to the other world. Everything he saw and heard and experienced would inevitably be regarded as gifts from a greater civilization, and having even one of those wonders here could greatly increase everyone’s quality of life. This in turn meant that everything in this world was lagging and inconvenient. Though it had only been one year, the boy had gotten quite used to the other world, and the stiff bed and the smell of his house, lacking in proper ventilation, struck him more as uncomfortable than nostalgic. Tears fell from his eyes, though he didn’t know why, and he repeatedly wiped them off as he finished off his bread. He then filled a kettle with some water from the well and quenched his thirst. With that, he ended his meal.
The boy laid down on the bed, waiting for time to pass in the hopes that the villagers would return. He didn’t know how long he would have to wait, but he waited, nonetheless. Now that he was settled, his head filled with all sorts of thoughts. He thought of last year, how his mother had seen him off despite being bedridden, one arm draped over her injured hips. How his brother had given him a brave little smile when he told him to take care of their mother. He remembered it all so vividly. None of them could have imagined that that would be the last time they ever saw each other.
He thought of Myeong-su. How was he? He couldn’t help but be concerned, remembering how Myeong-su had looked. Even before the fall, he had been visibly shaken, his lips blue from the cold. He had been heavily reliant on the boy’s arm as support, his steps hesitant, his body trembling all over, and he had taken a fall on top of it all, rolling all the way down.
The boy had been a stranger to him, a newcomer who had been assigned as Myeong-su’s roommate. Even with his personality, he must have felt uncomfortable at the thought of sharing his room. And yet, perhaps due to the unbearable awkwardness or his curiosity taking priority over everything else, Myeong-su had approached the boy first.
“Is that a necklace?”
Myeong-su’s eyes had shone brightly as he asked, excitedly pointing at the pendant around the boy’s neck. He was lively and friendly ever since the beginning, and the boy had no idea what happened to him.
More and more thoughts filled his head, wave after wave. Though sunset was fast approaching, sleep was the last thing in his mind, and he lay there, eyes wide open, unable to escape from his thoughts.