If destiny takes hold of you once, it takes hold of you forever. From the moment you’re born, everything happens in sequence, one thing after another. If you’re born poor, chances are that you’ll live poor and you’ll die poor, and if you’re born wealthy, chances are that you’ll live wealthy and die wealthy. If you get caught up in it once, you’re caught up in it until the end.
There are exceptions, of course, but I’m not one of them. Because I’m a murderer, raised as an orphan with nothing to his name.
“I didn’t kill her,” I mutter.
These are the words I’ve been habitually muttering to myself for twenty years.
Ho-un stops eating and glances at me. “Why is he looking so down when he’s about to be released?” he asks.
“Would you be happy about it? He’s served the whole twenty years before he can leave,” says another inmate.
“But at least he’s leaving.”
“I suppose. I’m just glad it’s not a life sentence.”
I put down my spoon.
The chopsticks of my prison family members who are gathered around the table stop moving as well.
“Don’t mind me. Just eat,” I tell them.
I’ve had no appetite for the past few days. That’s because I’m not being released early; I’m being released after having served my full sentence.
I’ve always dreamed that the real culprit would be caught and the false charge would be removed from my name, but now, I’m soon to be an ex-convict who’s paid the price for his crime. There’s no meaning to leaving this hellish place.
Twenty years ago.
I can still remember every detail. Especially the smell of pizza that filled the entire elevator.
At the time, I was broke and hadn’t eaten for several days. I was wallowing in misery at the reality that there were others in the world who, unlike me, could easily spend tens of thousands of won on meals.
‘Should I pretend I’ve lost my mind and just eat it?’
This single thought occupied the entirety of my brain as the elevator traveled to the 17th floor. That was why I just grabbed the front door and opened it.
“Why did you open it? Is it normal for a delivery man to open the door if nobody’s there?” the police detective asked me. “Normally, you’d ring the doorbell or call the customer.”
This was where his interrogation began.
Well, I suppose he was right. Depending on how you look at it, you could think of it as suspicious. After all, even I don’t understand why I did that. Looking back now, ‘I was so hungry that I couldn’t think straight’ is the most reasonable explanation.
Whatever the reason was, my eyes moved along the trail of broken pieces of a flower vase. From the dirt and clothes strewn across the floor, past the toppled-over trash can, and onto the black hair that was hanging off the end of the sofa.
“I called out to her, but she didn’t respond,” I told the detective.
I approached the woman, who was lying there as if asleep.
The warm afternoon sun was spilling onto her skin. Her appearance could only be described as beautiful, and her limbs were long and slender. It was like I was looking at a picture in a book.
I swear to God, I didn’t know that she was dead. I just thought she was asleep.
I shook her by the shoulder.
“You didn’t know she was dead?” the detective repeated, resuming his questioning. “Her head was split wide open. What the hell are you saying?”
How in the world had I been unable to tell that she was dead when her blood was clotted in her hair? Who knows. I didn’t see it at the time. If I could be allowed to give an excuse, I’d say I was bewitched by her sheer beauty.
“Oh, she was a celebrity?” I asked.
I was still giving my statement when I learned who she was for the first time. She was the most famous actress in Korea, Hae-soo.
But how could I find the time to do things like watch TV when I was struggling to even eat?
“You live in Korea and you’ve never heard of Hae-soo? Are you a foreign spy or some shit?” the detective said incredulously.
Under the lighting of the interrogation room, I could see his face contorted in disbelief.
That was the first time I felt anxious. It was the instant that I instinctively sensed how fucked up the next twenty years were going to be.
Everything after that happened in a hurry. Evidence started appearing out of nowhere, reporters blinded me with the endless flashes of their cameras, and my hands were put in cuffs.
And so, the scenery of my life changed for a second time.
I look through a countless number of scrapbooks. These are my treasures, containing the articles and information that I’ve gathered from newspapers for the past twenty years. The evidence that I’ve been studying over and over, in order to catch the real criminal myself if they weren’t caught before my release from prison.
Thanks to these treasures, I’ve been staying well-informed about the state of the outside world despite being locked up.
“Hyeong-nim. You should have something to eat,” says Seong-beom, putting a spoon in my hand.
TLN: Hyeong means “older brother” and is an honorific used by men towards older men to show closeness and respect. It is added to the end of people’s names and is often followed by nim (hyeong-nim), another honorific used to show respect, when used on its own without a name.
He’s the youngest, who only came here a few months ago, but he’s a friendly guy with a good personality… though he’s been using that personality to swindle money from people.
“They say that the more twisted your life is, the better fortune you have in your later years,” says Ho-un.
He was a famous hacker. At the peak of his career, he was arrested for leaking the sex tape of a member of the National Assembly. It’s thought that he was hired by a member of the opposing party, but when someone asks him about it, he just smiles and doesn’t answer. It seems that his clients paid him small fortunes for his work; he’s the richest out of all of us.
“Of course! Nothing but good things are waiting for our hyeong once he’s out of here!” says Dal-gon, a former gangster who’s put that life behind him.
“Koreans need to eat to stay strong. No matter what you do, you need to eat,” says Ha-seong, a guy who can steal anything you could think of, save the heart of a woman.
“But you can’t come back in here just because the food’s good, got it?” says Jackson, who was the most famous host in Gangnam District.
One by one, my prison family members add some food on top of my rice.
I start to get a little choked up. Having grown up without anyone to call my flesh and blood, these guys were my first family.
I hastily cram my rice into my mouth.
“What are you going to do when you get out? Is there anything you want to do?” says the youngest guy, giving an innocent smile, not knowing anything.
There is something I want to do. The thing that I’ve always wanted to do. The thing that I, an orphan, have always thought about doing: Become a police officer.
I’ve always thought about how awesome they are, wearing their uniform and upholding justice.
The dream that I’ve nurtured since I was young still remains in my mind. But as a criminal, it’s a completely impossible dream. A dream that will forever remain just that – a dream.
“Hyeong-nim, you’re in good shape, so you should open up a gym,” one of my brothers who knows of my circumstances says, changing the topic.
“Y-yeah. You’re the strongest out of all of us,” says another.
I give a bitter smile as I scoop up the rest of my rice.
“Inmate 2110. You finished eating?” says a voice.
Warden Kim has appeared at the window.
Isn’t it still dinner time?
Confused, I shake my head.
“Take your time,” the warden says as he extends a hand, holding a white envelope. “I was told to give you this.”
Today’s a Sunday, so mail isn’t even supposed to be delivered today.
I give the warden an odd look as I take the envelope.
“Just take it,” he says with a shrug. “I was just told to pass it on to you.”
A personal delivery means that whoever sent this paid good money. But I don’t have any family or friends on the outside. Who would do such a thing?
My prison family gathers around me curiously; this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.
I examine the envelope. The sender’s name isn’t written on it; only mine.
“Hurry up and open it. Hyeong-nim, you had a girlfriend?” says one of the younger ones.
“How the hell would I get a girlfriend?” I say.
“Then who is it? I’ve never seen you get a letter in twenty years.”
“Nah, he got plenty from Hae-soo fans, remember? Letters full of curses.”
“Shut up,” I say.
With tears in my eyes, I rip open the end of the envelope.
Despite the elaborate effort taken to have it delivered to me, there’s not a lot in it. Just a piece of paper with two short sentences: ‘I have something to tell you about the Hae-soo case. I will be waiting at the entrance on the day of your release.’
“What? Waiting on the day of my release?” I repeat.
“That’s great, Hyeong-nim. You get to eat tofu!”
“Who gives a shit about the tofu, you idiot! It says they’ve got something to tell him about the case!”
TLN: In Korea, eating tofu after being released from prison is an act that symbolizes turning over a new leaf.
The voices of my clamoring prison family members grow faint, and my body begins trembling.
Who is it? Just who in the world has sent me this letter?
“Maybe they know who really did it,” says Ho-un.
His eyebrows are slightly crooked. It’s a habit of his when he’s deep in thought about something.
He’s right. I can’t imagine any other possibility.
Whoever sent this letter knows who the real culprit is, or they’ll confess the reason as to why the investigation was so absurd.
“I told you, didn’t I? Your life is going to have a happy ending, Hyeong-nim,” says Ho-un.
I calm my racing heart and give a nod. “Thanks for everything,” I say.
“What are you getting all emotional for?” says one of my other brothers.
“I at least need to thank you for letting me fill our cramped room with all these books.”
“It’ll be refreshing to not have to look at these scraps of paper.”
I embrace my family and give a bright laugh.
Two days before my release, I quickly pack my belongings and put the letter away safely.
With my mind burning with questions to ask whoever sent it, the next two days feel longer than the entirety of the past twenty years.
Five in the morning.
The sky is still dark.
Today is the day I leave for the outside world.
After a guard checks my belongings, I follow him to the inmate release waiting room. I take off my inmate uniform, fold it neatly, and put it in the storage cupboard.
My hands are shaking.
I can’t believe I’m about to put on ordinary clothes, clothes that aren’t a prison uniform. What’s more, the piece of clothing in front of me is a jacket with a pizza brand’s logo on it. Because I was imprisoned so suddenly, this is what I was wearing when I came here. I remember it being in the news, because the logo was even visible in the photographs that the reporters took. Something about the company’s stocks plummeting.
I change and stand in front of the mirror. I’ve changed from a young man to a middle-aged one, but it feels like I’ve gone back to those days.
“Have you finished changing?” asks the guard. “We’ll be checking your identity next.”
“Yes. I’ll be there in a minute,” I tell him.
I pick up my bag and swing it over my shoulder. Everything from the last twenty years of my life is packed into this one small bag.
“Your inmate number is 2110. Is that correct?”
“Please confirm that the name and date of birth written here are correct.”
“Thank you for serving your sentence. Mr. Bae Min-soo, as of today, the 1st of April 20XX, you are officially released from this facility.”
The other inmates being released along with me walk towards the front gate.
Perhaps because of the early morning air, my mind is strangely calm… even though I’ve stayed up the entire night.
After one last ID check, the gate opens.
“Let’s never see each other again,” the guard jokes.
I smile as I take the world in with my eyes. The families of the other released inmates are crowding around. The warm smell of tofu is in the air.
Anyhow, where is the person who sent me the letter?
Ah. That man over there who’s watching me. He’s standing in a dark spot, and he’s even wearing a hat that’s concealing his face
I walk along the footpath towards him.
He’s holding a black envelope. Could there be tofu inside?
Suddenly, the man starts to run towards me. “Look out!” he shouts.
I hear a loud horn –
What is he telling me to look out for?
The moment I turn around, I see a garbage truck the size of a house.
There’s a crunch.
I scream in pain.
My body is thrown into the air, crashes into the ground, then rolls down the footpath. It feels like all of my vertebrae have exploded.
The vehicle doesn’t stop; it continues along its path, straight into the mysterious man. In my blurred vision, I can make out his body lying face-down on the road.
How could this happen? I thought my dogshit life couldn’t get any more fucked up. Ho-un told me my later years would be better.
Fragments of the newspapers that I gathered over the years fly into the sky. A red sun is rising on one side of the morning sky.
“Ambulance! Call an ambulance!” someone shouts.
Someone stands over me and taps me on the cheek. “Are you alright?” he says. I can see a tattoo of a tiger on the palm of his hand.
But this person is… laughing?
It’s him. This bastard is the one who kills me.
My consciousness blurs.
Just what did I do wrong? Isn’t this just too much?
There’s no way for me to know everything about this situation, but I’m certain of one thing. If I follow this tattoo, the truth will be there.
“Mr. Go Ji-hun… Ji-hun…”
Someone is calling me by the wrong name. I’m not Ji-hun, I’m Bae Min-soo.
Ah, I’m dizzy. I think death is really coming for me now.
Son of a bitch. I don’t know who you are, but I’ll find out, even after I’ve died. I’ll find out and follow you around for your whole life.
And if there is a god… please let me live normally in my next life. Don’t let destiny take hold of me again.
“Please open your eyes, Mr. Go Ji-hun,” the voice says again.
… Me? Are you talking to me?