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A Thousand Faces

2

Chapter 2

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“Junwoo! Your dad just pulled off a huge score!”

The familiar smell of fried chicken filled the air. It was Jinmi Chicken delivery, Ilnam’s favorite.

The place was alive with noise. Junwoo could hear his fathers bickering and the faint sound of a TV in the background.


“A huge score and you got chicken again? What happened to steak this week?”

There was a familiar, comforting feeling. Strange. Just a moment ago, he’d been lying on the cold, hard floor of his cell.

Junwoo furrowed his brows, his eyes closed. The word “drumstick” caught his attention as he listened to the noise. The racket of his fathers’ argument mingled with the other sounds in the room.

“Hey, don’t touch my food. What have you done today to earn a share?”

“Whaddaya mean? I did my fair share! Let go of me.”

“You got two chickens for five of us? How’ve you been managing to scam people if you’re that stingy?”

As the drumstick changed hands, Ilnam claimed it and raised it above everyone’s heads.

“Junwoooo!” he called out.

Ilnam ducked out of the kitchen and crossed the living room.

Junwoo heard footsteps getting closer and closer. His eyes snapped open as a chicken drumstick was thrust into his mouth.

The first thing he saw was Ilnam’s face, his nose scrunched up as he chuckled. The faint scent of beer wafted from his mouth.

Everything felt strange.

By the time Junwoo was an adult, Ilnam, who had struggled with health issues for most of his life, finally stopped drinking.

“Hehe. Is it delicious?”

But the weirdest thing was Ilnam’s face—it was younger. Much younger. His once-gray hair was now pitch black.

What was going on? Instinctively, Junwoo sat up. He was lying on the sofa, not in his solitary cell.

He turned his head. The fathers were gathered in the living room, serving fried chicken and beer. It was a familiar scene, but it felt like a distant memory.


Junwoo started nibbling on the drumstick, wearing a puzzled expression. An old movie was playing on TV—one from twenty years ago.

This memory felt too vivid to be a dream.

“Junwoo, quit watching that damned TV and come over here!” yelled the father who had his drumstick stolen. “We’re getting the table ready for dinner.”

Ilnam whirled around. “He’s trying to snatch it back, Junwoo! Don’t go over there till you finish it.”


***

For the past few days, Ilnam had started to notice something about his son. He wasn’t as chatty as before. Back when they’d plan their cons, Junwoo would be all in, buzzing with questions about who they were going to trick next. But now, his spark seemed dimmed.

At first, the fathers speculated that he might just be in a bad mood, but it seemed like more than that. Every time they saw him, he looked deeply annoyed by something and kept shaking his head for no clear reason.

“What’s up with him these days?”

“Probably just hitting that teenage rebellion phase, you know?”

“And if he decides to really rebel, then what?”

“Ah, you worry too much. You know how Junwoo is. If he gets caught, he’ll find his way back one way or another.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Anyway. Tell me, did you manage to get him?”

The fathers were gathered in the living room, engrossed in discussions about their next scheme, as usual. Junwoo watched them from the hallway, his mind racing.

He had figured things out over the past few days.



Over the years, Junwoo had orchestrated countless schemes. All of them had played out perfectly with not a single failure. But in the end, he couldn’t control his fathers’ greed. They always wanted more.

Junwoo realized this far too late.

Even so, without him, his fathers would continue their life of deception, even just to make ends meet. They would be hopeless at any larger schemes; they needed Junwoo for that.

In his previous life, it might very well have been Junwoo that had fueled their insatiable desires.

Staying would only ensure a repeat of the past.

So, he made up his mind. Leaving was the only option. He couldn’t ruin his life again.

The problem was Junhwan Jang. Simply telling him he wanted out wouldn’t cut it. Junhwan wouldn’t just let him walk away, not after Junwoo had been privy to all their plans.


Like a natural reflex, Junwoo’s mind started piecing together a plan. Suddenly, an idea flashed into his mind with intuitive clarity.

A way to solve all his problems.


Even going back in time hadn’t changed Junwoo one bit.

***

Ilnam stood at the front door of the house, wearing a grin.

Junwoo paused, an image of the con artist, faced with prison, offering to sacrifice himself for his son flashing through his mind.

Looking back, Junwoo realized that Ilnam had always been a steady presence in his life. Out of all his fathers, he was the one who laughed the most, tripped more often, and wasn’t afraid to show his imperfections.

Junwoo found it easy to be comfortable around Ilnam for those very reasons. Back then, he hadn’t known that Ilnam deliberately acted like that because he cherished his son.

“Dad?”

Ilnam was staring serenely at the sky, lost in thought.

“What are you doing out here?” Junwoo asked.

Ilnam turned around at Junwoo’s touch. “Oh, it’s you.”

He smiled broadly. Despite not being his biological son, Ilnam’s warmth toward Junwoo was unmistakable. Junwoo suppressed a bitter smile.

“I’m hungry. Can you cook me something?”

“What’s up, son? What do you feel like? How about we grill some barbecue for old times’ sake, eh?”

Junwoo looked down. “Okay, I’ve decided. I feel like anchovy stew.”

“What? Anchovy stew?”

Everyone knew of Ilnam’s love for anchovy stew, especially paired with shots of soju. However, for Junwoo and many others, the fishy meal wasn’t exactly the most appealing.

Before going back in time, Junwoo had watched Ilnam head off to eat alone in some back-alley diner. The way he had said it was different from usual, a hidden message in his tone. It must have been the last dish he wanted to eat as a free man.

At least once, Junwoo wanted to enjoy Ilnam’s favorite meal with him. Who cared if it smelled a little fishy? Things like that didn’t matter anymore.

“Son, what’s gotten into you? You said you hated the smell of that stew.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. I’m just craving it today.”

Ilnam was puzzled. Junwoo wasn’t one to do something he disliked, not even to save his own life. Something was different; while not particularly bright by nature, Junwoo seemed unusually calm today.

Still, Ilnam was pleased by the fact that they were going to share a meal at his usual haunt.

They entered a modest diner with a worn-out, fluorescent sign. Ilnam and Junwoo sat facing each other at a scratched wooden table in the corner. The fishy smell of stew filled the air, and memories of a visit here at some point slowly resurfaced.

“Ah, my favorite customer!” greeted the owner, a middle-aged woman. Her voice hadn’t changed a bit.

She rushed over to greet Ilnam, who chuckled.

“The usual, please. Oh! Make that two bowls today,” Ilnam said, raising two fingers in the air. He tapped the back of Junwoo’s head. “A treat for my son here.”

The owner asked them to wait for a moment and swiftly disappeared into the kitchen.

“Alright, son. Did you have something to tell me? Go on.” Ilnam clasped his hands on the table and looked at Junwoo expectantly.

Junwoo hesitated for a moment.

Despite Ilnam’s occasionally silly antics, there was no doubt he was a cunning swindler. There was no way he missed the subtle changes in his son’s attitude. In all honesty, Junwoo had never intended deception—at least not to Ilnam.

“Well… I don’t know if there’s anything to say.”

Just then, the owner came out of the kitchen carrying two bowls. The hot broth spilled over the sides as she set them down, and the anchovy-laden steam rose thickly.

“Wow, what a big serving. Dig in before it gets cold,” Ilnam said.

“Thanks, Dad.”

Ilnam’s face beamed with happiness. Despite everything, he appeared content with simple moments like this.

“Dad, why do you do this kind of work?”

The question slipped out unexpectedly, surprising Junwoo himself. He couldn’t pinpoint why it had crossed his mind at that moment. He had never asked that before.

Ilnam looked taken aback. The only thing his son was interested in was when the next con would be. It was the first time he had asked about his father’s feelings.

Ilnam snorted. “Why do you ask?”

“It just… doesn’t suit you.”

Ilnam, who had been about to sip a spoonful of stew, stopped to think.

“I got into it back when Junhwan Jang reached out to me. After I got out.” Muttering as if talking to himself, Ilnam soon regained his composure. His face settled into his usual expression. “You don’t need to know.”

Junwoo had heard the story before in vague bits of information he had pieced together. This scamming life had begun with Junhwan Jang.

“This isn’t the life you wanted,” Junwoo said.

“Huh? What’re you talking about? I this.”

“You can still quit now.”

But Junwoo knew the reality. There weren’t many paths available to a con artist stamped with a criminal record.

Ilnam wore a slightly bitter expression. “Well, if you say so… But why is my son suddenly so interested in his dad today?”

He thought Junwoo didn’t know. The boy’s cheerful demeanor never gave away that he was aware of all his family’s shady dealings.

Realizing his son had been fully aware yet was watching out for his father filled Ilnam with a mix of pride and regret.

“You shouldn’t be a criminal for the rest of your life,” Ilnam said. “I told you that, didn’t I? If you want out, just say the word.”

But Ilnam knew his son; he wouldn’t listen. Ilnam had lost count of the times he had advised Junwoo of the same thing, over and over like a mantra.

When exactly had the little rascal who had tricked him that day become his son?

Junwoo, however, knew exactly when.


He had been young and stubborn back then. Ilnam was the first person who had helped him. Perhaps now the man regretted leading his son into a life of crime.

At his current age of fifteen, Junwoo wasn’t past the point of no return. He was sure Ilnam understood that going deeper meant there’d be non turning back.

“I know you won’t listen,” Ilnam continued, “but there are options out there. I hope you realize that…”

Junwoo read the concerned look in Ilnam’s eyes. He had never seen the man look so sincere, his desires so apparent. He barely recognized him. Why did he want Junwoo to escape this life so badly?

“Actually, now that I think about it, I can’t really say much,” Ilnam said in a resigned voice.

It wasn’t the most convincing of arguments: a swindler father, advising his son to take a path that didn’t involve swindling. And Junwoo had already honed his talents in the world of crime. Ilnam was simply saying the same old thing out of worry for his son’s future, not really expecting his advice to stick.

But then…

“I guess there are options. I’ve never really thought that far before.”

Ilnam almost dropped his spoon. His son, who had always dismissed his fatherly advice as nagging, was now entirely focused on his words.

“What should I do? If I were to give this up, what do you think I’d be good at?”

This was the first time Junwoo had shown interest in anything outside of the family business. Apart from his next role, he never showed even a sliver of curiosity about the world.

“Hmm…” murmured Ilnam.

Junwoo narrowed his eyes, deep in thought. A different path… His only focus had been moving out.

As Junwoo considered Ilnam’s sincere worry for his future, he began to wonder.

A second life. What would he do with it?

Ilnam became anxious, worried that Junwoo might change his mind.

“Well, even a regular office job would be fine. And you’re good at talking. How about a counselor? Or— Oh! What about being an actor? You love acting.”

Ilnam felt like he might have blurted out too much. A con artist turned actor? He regretted possibly steering Junwoo toward an unrealistic option.

“An actor…”

But Junwoo thought differently. That word hit him straight in the chest:

He’d be lying if he said he had never dreamed about it. When he first discovered movies as a kid, an inexplicable emotion had welled up in his heart.

A whole new world on screen. Everything about movies captivated him.

Was it mere curiosity, or was it ambition? And if it was ambition, what kind of ambition was it?

He couldn’t figure out the emotion swelling within him. Whatever it was, it was a feeling that he naturally buried.

Next to him, his fathers were preparing for their next scam. It was something Junwoo wasn’t allowed to be involved in.


Things could be different this time. However, right now, they needed to focus on the plan. A nagging worry began to grate at Ilnam. If Junwoo were to disappear, the guilt would torment him. His heart sank a little.

“Or maybe… Hmm…” Ilnam muttered. “You’d probably be good at…”

He continued listing professions excitedly. From the way he was so worked up over just one mention of Junwoo taking a different path, it was obvious he had been thinking about it for a long time.

Junwoo thought he knew exactly the kind of thoughts his father would’ve been thinking as he watched the young, innocent-looking boy on the streets committing crimes.

Ilnam grinned broadly. “Whatever it is, Junwoo, you’ll do well. I’ll support you no matter what.”

Watching his dad like this, Junwoo couldn’t stay quiet any longer. He had to tell him.

Junwoo neatly placed his spoon in the empty bowl before him.

“Dad?”

His voice sounded grave. Expectant.

“I want to die.”

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