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Please Don't Talk to Me by bbangduksi. A shy woman is hiding behind a tipsy man holding a bottle of soju.

Please Don't Talk to Me

3

Chapter 3

22

Access to the 5th floor is restricted.

 

Dongju stared at the notice posted at the entrance to the fifth-floor staircase.

 

Violation will result in expulsion.

 

He slowly turned around and trudged back to the department office, each step heavy, as if his slippers were stuck in gum. Opening the door, he scanned the room for Professor Hwang.

 

When their eyes met, Professor Hwang quickly turned back to his monitor.

 

Dongju then looked toward Ahn.

 

When Ahn’s eyes locked onto Dongju’s, he smiled broadly. Dongju didn’t return the smile.

 

He walked over to Professor Hwang’s desk.

 

Though Professor Hwang sensed Dongju approaching, he pretended not to notice and kept staring at his monitor.

 

Dongju rested one arm on the partition. Only then did the professor acknowledge his presence.

 

“Yes?”

 

Dongju silently stared at Professor Hwang.

 

Glancing at Dongju, Professor Hwang said, “What is it? Say something.”

 

“Was it Ahn?”

 

“What was? What’re you talking about?”

 

Overhearing this, Ahn laughed and chimed in. “Yeah, it was me. I got the fifth floor blocked. We don’t use it anyway. If students keep sneaking in, it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens.”

 

Ahn emphasized the word “bad.”

 

He added, more emphatically, “Professor Hwang also thought it was a good idea.”

 

Professor Hwang continued to stare at his monitor, pretending to hear nothing.

 

Dongju looked at Ahn. “Expulsion seems a bit harsh.”

 

“It makes people take it seriously.”

 

Tension hung in the air of the office.

 

Though everyone seemed absorbed in their monitors, they listened intently to the exchange. Feeling compelled to join, Professor Hwang finally spoke up.

 

“What’s wrong with you two? I also agreed to the restriction on the fifth floor. Dongju, you should stop going there, too. I gave you a clear warning.”

 

Ahn, satisfied, turned his head back to his monitor. The clicking of keyboards resumed. Silently, Dongju turned around and left the office.

 

Holding his tumbler, he walked down the hallway, his eyes scanning around. Every room either seemed to be full of people or locked shut. From the fourth floor of the Humanities building down to the first, Dongju kept looking until he eventually stepped outside.

 

In desperation, he stopped at the smoking area and took a sip of his drink. He scanned the front of the Humanities building. The lawn, the Pharmacy building, the main hall, the plaza, the ginkgo-lined path, the main gate.

 

Dongju’s gaze finally settled on one place.

 

The security office…

 

“Do I smell like alcohol?”

 

“Wow, you really don’t talk, do you?”

 

It was the perfect spot—a silent security guard from morning until 4 p.m.

 

He took about three steps toward the security office, then hesitated.

 

“Or are you poor?”

 

“Is it that you don’t really know how to do anything else?”

 

“Maybe you didn’t get an education?”

 

“Ah, shit…”

 

Dongju pressed his fingertips against his temples. He hadn’t expected his own words to come back to haunt him like this. He regretted saying those things.

 

Slowly, Dongju approached the office. His mind was buzzing with thoughts. He stopped near the lawn and watched the building for a while. The guard was sweeping, finding packages, and sorting recyclables.

 

Cracking his neck with a sharp snap, Dongju looked around. He approached a male student with glasses who was passing by.

 

“Excuse me.”

 

The student flinched and gave Dongju a wary look.

 

Trying to sound as neutral as possible, Dongju asked, “Do you know where the Energy Development Center is?”

 

“The what?”

 

“The Energy Development Center.”

 

“I haven’t heard of a place like that…”

 

The student was about to continue on his way, stepping aside to pass by, when Dongju stepped in front of him.

 

“Could you ask the security office for me?”

 

“Me?”

 

“Yes. I have a phobia of women.”

 

“Of women…?”

 

“The guard is a woman.”

 

The student gave him a suspicious look but headed toward the security office anyway. Dongju followed but stopped about ten steps away. When the student hesitated, Dongju nodded quickly toward the office, urging him on.

 

Reluctantly, the student approached the window.

 

“Excuse me, do you know where the Energy Development Center is?”

 

***

 

The Energy Development Center. The name didn’t ring a bell. I was pretty sure I had memorized the campus map, but I couldn’t remember seeing it anywhere.

 

I thought I should at least appear to be busy, so I opened the map and pretended to search for the building. But I couldn’t keep up the act forever. As my eyes darted around, time kept ticking away.

 

What should I do? I could admit I didn’t know and apologize, but what if this student questioned why a guard didn’t know the school’s layout? Or I could randomly point him in any direction and hope for the best. But if I sent him off course, he might return even more frustrated. Maybe I could pretend to have an emergency and leave, but that seemed too awkward. Deep down, I was really hoping he’d realize I was clueless and just walk away.

 

I was desperate to get out of this situation, no matter what.

 

Knock knock.

 

“Excuse me, did you hear what I said?”

 

The knocking on the window snapped me out of my thoughts. My heart pounded loudly.

 

Now I reallyhad to do something. Apologizing seemed like the best option. It felt like the least disruptive way to avoid making things worse.

 

Finally, I reached for the window. My hand seemed to move in slow motion.

 

I slid the window open.

 

“Did you say the Energy Development Center?”

 

Just then, another voice cut in.

 

“There’s no place in the school I don’t know about.”

 

The student’s gaze shifted from me to the source of the new voice.

 

At that moment, I thought I might be able to escape this ordeal without doing anything.

 

The owner of the voice stepped into view. I looked at the face of the savior who had appeared almost miraculously.

 

But this person was…

 

“Is it that you don’t really know how to do anything else?”

 

“Maybe you didn’t get an education?”

 

It was the man who had come to the security office yesterday with strange questions.

 

Why was he back here again? I felt a moment of unease. However, at the same time, I was hopeful that he might resolve the situation.

 

The man stood with his back to the security office and began to direct the student. Pointing between the main building and the Pharmacy building, he said, “There’s a staircase over there. Go up, and you’ll come to the central library. Go around the library to the right…”

 

“Hold on,” said the student. “Just then, you said you didn’t—”

 

“Could you please let me finish?”

 

“…”

 

“Ah, where was I? If you turn right, you’ll see the Law School building. Take the lift to the sixth floor, and you’ll find a sky bridge. Cross that and go down to the fourth floor, and you should see the Energy Development Center right in front of you.”

 

After finishing the explanation, the man said, “Okay, you can go now.”

 

“What’s this all about—”

 

“No need to thank me.”

 

“No, I—”

 

“Please go.”

 

The man sent the student on his way and turned back toward the security office.

 

I felt like I should show some gratitude to the man. I debated whether to write a thank you note or offer him a drink.

 

In the meantime, the man walked up to the window.

 

“Open the door, please. Let me in.”

 

I felt a slight unease.

 

Why did he want to come in here? Only authorized personnel were allowed in, and he must have known that. My gut told me not to let him in.

 

However, it was hard to outright deny him after he had helped. I thought about explaining that I couldn’t let him in due to regulations, trying to make sure I didn’t offend him.

 

Just then, the man looked down at me and said, “I know it’s restricted to authorized personnel only. But you could just turn a blind eye.”

 

I flinched.

 

It was like he’d read my thoughts.

 

I looked for another reason to refuse his entry, something convincing that he couldn’t argue with. Maybe I could say that if outsiders were caught in the security office, I could lose my job. That would surely make him back off…

 

At that moment, the man lowered his head and said quietly, “Or should I file a complaint with the school saying the guard couldn’t even explain where the buildings are? You’d probably get fired then, wouldn’t you?”

 

A chill ran down my spine. All I could do was blink and remain still. How could he say that so nonchalantly? I was scared. I had thought he was someone to be wary of, but he was proving to be even more intimidating than I’d anticipated.

 

The fear of losing my job was stressful enough, but the idea of getting fired for not being able to give simple directions around the school was terrifying. What would people think if they heard I got fired over something so trivial? They’d probably think I was pathetic. And what would my mom say? She might act like it wasn’t a big deal, but I know she’d be disappointed deep down. Even though it really was a big deal, we’d both pretend it wasn’t, letting the disappointment quietly grow inside.

 

As these thoughts swirled, my mind began to search for excuses.

 

Maybe it’s fine if he comes in for a bit. It won’t cause a huge problem, right? It’s just for a moment. Sure, there’s a rule against outsiders coming in, but is it really that big of a deal? Maybe it’s just a formality…

 

I looked at the door. The realization that yielding was all I could do struck me hard. Yet, the fear of my pathetic self being exposed was stronger than the pain that realization brought.

 

I walked to the door. I turned the handle.

 

As the door opened, the man entered the security office without hesitation. He scanned the room and then went to sit in a corner. As soon as he slumped down, he opened his tumbler and took a sip. I stood by the door. I didn’t want to get close to him. I also wanted to subtly pressure him to leave quickly without lingering. The man seemed indifferent to whether I stood or sat.

 

He finally spoke.

 

“The campus is bigger than it looks.”

 

“…”

 

“People ask for directions all the time.”

 

What did he expect me to do about it? I wished he would just leave. Why was he speaking so slowly?

 

The man took another leisurely sip from his tumbler. “I’ll stay here and help you out since you’re still not familiar with the school.”

 

What did he mean by helping? I wanted for him to elaborate, but he remained silent after his statement. It seemed he was using the excuse of answering people’s questions to justify staying in the security office.

 

Then, a scent drifted to my nose. I took a deep breath.

 

That’s alcohol…

 

I glanced at the tumbler the man was holding. That was the smell I had noticed earlier. What he had been drinking was indeed alcohol. He wanted to drink in the security office.

 

How ridiculous must I look to him?

 

My head felt like it was spinning. I walked to my desk and sat down at an awkward angle, keeping him just within my peripheral vision. I picked up a random file and pretended to skim through it, using this as a chance to organize my thoughts.

 

If I tell him to leave, he’ll probably file a complaint with the school. But without him, I can’t answer anyone’s questions. So, to avoid trouble, maybe I should just turn a blind eye to him drinking in the security office. Is that okay, though? What if someone finds out…

 

I sneaked a glance at the man using just my eyeballs. Since I was alone until the next shift change, he probably wouldn’t get caught if he stayed in that corner. If I just pretended not to notice, then no one would find out about him. Realizing this changed my decision slightly.

 

Maybe… I could just leave him be for now. Just for a little while… I’d think of a solution after buying some time. A few days might be okay. It would just be something I’d keep to myself. Nobody else would have to know…

 

My heart was racing at the thought of doing something I shouldn’t. The risk of possibly getting caught only made it race faster. But that was nothing compared to the overwhelming pressure of feeling like a pathetic human being.

 

I told myself that keeping him here was the best course of action for now.

 

Suddenly, my entire life as a security guard felt unstable. What would happen in the future? Could I continue doing this job?

 

I felt on the verge of tears. I let out a long, thin sigh, hoping the man wouldn’t hear.

 

***

 

“…gi.”

 

“…”

 

“Woogi.”

 

“Huh…?”

 

I snapped back to reality as if I’d just surfaced from deep underwater. My heart was racing.

 

Mom was looking at me in the mirror.

 

“Is this okay? What are you thinking about?”

 

I shifted my gaze from my mom’s reflection to my own. My hair, which had once reached my chest, was now just above my collarbone.

 

“Oh, um…”

 

My mind kept wandering back to that day. What if I had done things differently? Would I still be in school?

 

“How can you not say a word? Is it true what the others say? Do you dislike acknowledging us because we’re not in your league? Is that why you ignore us?”

 

My thoughts always reached the same conclusion. Even if I had dealt with it then, something similar would have happened sooner or later anyway. It was inevitable. I didn’t fit in. And it was right that I didn’t…

 

I spoke without really looking at the mirror. “The right side is slightly longer.”

 

“Eh? Looks the same to me.”

 

Mom carefully compared the lengths of my hair on the right and left sides, combing each down. She remarked, “You always say the right side is longer every time I cut it.”

 

Seeing her so focused on such a trivial detail pained me. Why was that so important?

 

I looked at my mom in the mirror. “Mom, I…” I paused, swallowing something that seemed to rise in my throat. “Maybe I should just work from home.”

 

I tried to sound casual, as if it wasn’t a big deal, but my voice came out with an edge.

 

Mom didn’t seem to hear me; she just continued to trim with precise cuts.

 

My hair fell onto the newspaper like black snowflakes.

 

Mom paused her snipping and said, “Isn’t it better to work with people?”

 

My gaze slowly drifted downward.

 

Mom kept her eyes on the tips of my hair and added, “When I’m around people, it just feels like it gets worse, you know? It’s like everyone misunderstands me, and the more I’m with them, the lonelier I feel.”

 

She extended her hand toward me. I handed her the spray bottle I was holding. She took it and sprayed my hair a few times with water.

 

“But you also need to see people to feel like you’re living in the world. That feeling is quite important. And you might not believe it, but there are definitely people out there who will understand you.”

 

I doubted such people existed. I always seemed to be alone.

 

But I couldn’t tell Mom that. It would be too sad for her to know the truth. It would be cruel to take away even the small hope she might have that her daughter wasn’t completely isolated.

 

Mom gently brushed the ends of my hair. Then, she stepped back to examine me closely.

 

“I’m not saying you have to go to school or work like everyone else. Just anything. Maybe try something that lets you interact with people, even just a little bit.”

 

“…”

 

My heart ached because what Mom hoped for me seemed so minimal, yet even that felt too difficult. But I couldn’t bring myself to say I couldn’t do it.

 

Mom finished cutting my hair and placed her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me in the mirror and asked, “How does it look?”

 

I eyed my reflection and nodded almost imperceptibly.

 

After that day, the one question I kept asking myself was: What should I do?

 

Was there something I could do alone but with people—or maybe just around people—without having to get involved with them? Was such a thing possible?

 

I stood at a traffic light, gazing unfocused across the street, when someone caught my eye. The guard at Yeonjung University was sweeping up fallen leaves. People passed him: some with earphones in, some chatting with friends, others hurrying as if late for class.

 

The guard greeted the passersby. Some casually nodded back, while others seemed not to notice him at all and just hurried past. The guard, accustomed to such reactions, resumed his sweeping.

 

The traffic light turned green. I didn’t cross. I remained there as if spellbound, watching the guard continue his work. After a while, he straightened his back and looked around carefully.

 

Finding himself alone, he muttered, “Turn around and they scatter, turn around and they scatter. At this rate, I might as well talk to the leaves.”

 

I blinked, my eyes widening slightly. Something that I could do alone but around people… It seemed I had found just the job.

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