Toe — Kim Ha-ri

December 8, 2021

Volume 2, Issue 4

Friday is waste collection day. It took just one trip to put out cans and plastics. Noah, who was addicted to Coca-Cola and lived on instant food, would usually have to travel three or four times back and forth just to put out all the waste bags. But today's different. How funny, he thought. It didn't make sense. Cans, plastics, and even bottles all at once? It was when he was headed to the entrance of the motel that he felt like walking around for some reason. He started walking along the street. Something was sour at the tip of his tongue. He might have taken Theraflu before going to bed last night. He did have quite a deep sleep. It was an unusual day. The neck was stiff from oversleeping. The toe, it hurt too.

With a cigarette in his mouth, he took a turn around the convenience store and stepped on the road with diners and a drugstore. Wide roads and out-of-order traffic lights, roaring motorcycles and trucks. And at that movement, that speed of metallic machinery, he felt a sudden burst of hope. Hope, my ass, he thought. After Bitcoin nosedived and after stealing from the company behind the accountant's back, there's no way he could feel such a thing. But still, there it was. And oh, how beautiful was this speed, the mechanical civilization, and the people working and moving around. As he inhaled the smoke, a dizzying whirlwind rose from the back to the top of the head.

Noah walked towards the Lotto vendor across the road. The doors were wide open as though enjoying the scent of a late afternoon in May. And as he pushed it aside, the green beaded curtain hanging in the doorway made cute little noises. Peanut was at the flimsy table on the right side. He was filling up the lottery slip with a marker pen. His face had the shape of a peanut, so he's called Peanut. And the sight of the slouched shoulders over Peanut's rigorously moving hands got his hopes up even higher when it was just yesterday that he wanted to check out.

Hey, Noah said and hit his shoulder. Peanut raised his head and grinned at Noah. The dry patches on his cheekbones had turned scaly now. The nut head looked like he really needed some skin therapy or something. He elbowed Noah in the rib. Bro, he said, laying out a colorful flyer on the table and pushing it towards Noah. Lotto vendors never gave a damn about people smoking cigarettes. Noah pulled out a stick of Camel Lights and then spread the flyer.

<For thee, who wisheth death!>

A cult?

<Specializing in advanced cash, payday loans, liabilities, legal malpractices, phone scams, embezzlement. Is the weight of your own life crushing you down? Is dying your only way out?>

What?

<There's an easy way to get you killed. Can be disguised as suicide, homicide, or accidental death. No fear, no fuss. Success guaranteed 100%>

-Bro. Once you sign up for that, they'll get you jacked up right away. With something that'll mess up the memory. So you wouldn't know even in your dreams that you signed up for death. You just die like that.

-Why would I die?

-I thought you have some money issues. And you're becoming familiar with some seriously nasty dudes. You said you wanna die.

Noah spat on the floor and pulled out a lottery slip. Peanut went on.

-If I can just find someone to die, they'll give me 25% as commission. Hey, we were supposed to help each other. Die for me, bro.

Peanut turned to see the TV hanging high up in the corner behind him and then dipped his head back down.

-Bro. You know what? Jonggi Ahn is gonna die today. He's our client.

Jonggi Ahn's face was on TV. And a headline as well. Senator Jonggi Ahn charged with sex trafficking at the Boy's Shelter in Namyang-ju, an institution he had been sponsoring for five years. In the news footage was Jonggi Ahn standing alongside the administrators of the Boy's Shelter, in front of the gray building with the rigidity of some Soviet-style. He was holding a signboard that looked like an enlarged copy of a bank check. 'Payment of one hundred million Won,' Noah murmured.

-Dying is fucking stupid. Die for what? He should've tried to live.

Noah crumpled the lottery slip and jammed it in his pocket. He felt something in his pocket. He pulled it out. Two ten thousand Won bills. And as Noah turned around to leave, Peanut shouted.

-Jonggi Ahn, he's gonna die today. What an idiot!

And laughter.

After buying Cola gummies at the unmanned convenience store next to the Lotto vendor, Noah headed back home. It was still 5pm, and diners have started preparations for dinner. A burly man came out the back door of a grill diner. He turned on the faucet outside the building and bent down to wash the grills. And then he pulled out a gray stone and started sharpening the knife. He looked up. That gave Noah the shivers. What the hell's with the knife, anyway? He can't be after me, Noah thought. He must be working at the diner. Chewing a gummy, he walked back to the motel. Motorcycles with six, seven, or ten bolts of fabric were crowding the road, all headed to the market.

Noah walked between the motorcycles, ignoring the traffic lights. The stink of sweat was suffocating. The soles of his feet hurt even more. Could it be heel spurs? No, it's actually the toe that felt sore. I need to get a job, he thought. He's got a license, and he could drive a Damas or Labo. Maybe he wouldn't even need to be part of a shipping company. He could go freelance or something. Could he cut the prices down and get more work done. Already an experienced delivery truck driver in his head, Noah walked past the convenience store once again. An old man who had been sitting on one of the plastic chairs in front of the store stood up very slowly. He approached Noah and handed out a flyer.

<For thee, who wisheth death!>

-This is a creative economy. Creating jobs for petty criminals after they serve time. They'll slash the throats of the clients.

-Just go fuck yourself.

Noah pushed the old man and started running.

He stopped at the entrance of the motel, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and looked inside. No sight of the bulky fellas with Vetements t-shirts and Bottega belt bags. It was still May, but he was sweating like a pig as though he was stuck in a steaming pot. While climbing back up to the fifth floor, he tripped over on the stairs. His foot, it was damn too painful. Maybe because he hadn't walked that much recently. Noah popped into his mouth what was remaining in the bag of gummies. Then he went to the shared bathroom and washed his face. The eyebags and the flat cheekbones made him seem more likely a dead than a living. Noah walked into his room. It was an empty room. Empty enough for him to move out just about any time. Fuck this shithole, he thought and pulled out his phone. How much is it for a secondhand Labo? Four million? That much, he could afford. He still had the company money. Noah was about the press the purchase button, but then he dozed off.

For about ten minutes or so. The phone was vibrating. A text message reminding Noah that the phone bill is overdue. But there was no way. It wasn't right. After he took the cash, he went straight to the ATM and cashed it in. There really is no way. That was five stacks of fifty thousand Won, so it should be more than twenty million. There must've been some sort of a mix-up, he thought, as he just lay on the bed. A small, sobbing noise came from the next room. And all of a sudden, the hopes that were once there just weren't anymore, and instead, the empty space was filled with a vacuum. Hell, he'd be better off dead.

It was suffocating. Twenty million wasn't nearly enough to cover for the money he'd lost. Fucking shit. Twenty? He would need at least fifty million more. Interests piled up every blink of his eyes. Just like crap piling up in his intestines every single day. Noah's breath got shaky. He fell down from his bed. The tip of his white sock was tinged with blood. He removed his socks to see that the big toe was missing. Someone knocked on the door.

Noah got up limping and stood at the door. When the door opened, a young woman was tilting her head up to face Noah. The manager of the motel, she introduced herself and asked if he could see her for a moment. Feeling affected for some reason, Noah just nodded and walked after her. He could see a tattoo at the back of her neck. Some kind of a god or a monster with hundreds of arms. Not bad at all, he thought. It's offbeat. Why she's asking him out all of a sudden was another issue. It really was just a hopeful day today.

The two grabbed a coffee from the vending machine and walked up to the rooftop. It was hard to get a clear view of the sky with massive, messy knots of electrical wires hanging between the street lamps along Jongno 5-ga. The two leaned against the banister and gazed at the sunset. Noah was determined to buy a moving truck and start his own job as a truck driver. The woman stubbed out the cigarette on the stone banister. She opened her mouth.

-I'm not sociable enough to be living here.

-Neither am I, Noah replied.

The woman continued, pushing her hair behind her ear.

-You said you wanna die. Right? I heard they even cut off your toe. You wanted out, and you've got everything cleared already. Right?

She grabbed Noah by his neck and pushed him against the banister. Noah held on to the banister with both hands and looked down. It was the garbage dump he went down to earlier to put out recyclables. Not that pretty of a sight to behold just before dying. And not that she gave him the time for such a thought. She pushed Noah. It sounded like a water balloon bursting. The woman lit a cigarette and looked down. Gray brain fluid spread around the dead body. No one looked outside.

THE END



Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1987, Kim Ha-ri majored in Journalism at a Korean university, and now is working in a factory. Her fiction has appeared in literary web journal D5NZ5N, independent poetry magazine Wege, Quarterly literary magazine Epiic.

Kim Ha-ri commissioned a translation company.

Translator: Chae jIn-young.

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