When Kŏnsŏk returned from Tra Tinh he immediately came down with a high fever. This was the first time he had ever gotten so sick during his stay in Quang Tui. It felt as if every nerve in his body was about to break, and hot iron beads seemed to be rolling around and making a racket inside his skull. At first, he found it bearable. It wasn’t so bad to moan and groan and shed tears all night. It seemed that there was no time like being sick when you could so unapologetically pity yourself. The body proclaims its presence, so real and demanding, and appeals to your love of self in a way that seems impossible to resist. Kŏnsŏk was experiencing an utterly selfish episode of selfhood and pain. Tears ran down his cheeks and bone-rattling chills wracked his body. But, as he gritted his teeth and suffered, he found the power to forgive someone he had come to very much dislike: himself. No one could hear his moans. They seemed to carry all the regret and despair he felt towards himself. So Kŏnsŏk left his body alone in his house for two full days.
Nguyen Thi Lien came to visit him two days after Kŏnsŏk had become bedridden. When he awoke from a deep, medicine-induced sleep, he found Lien sitting at his bedside. Manager Oh had sent him the cold medicine from the hospital affiliated with the company. Probably Hieu had hinted to Lien how Kŏnsŏk was faring. She closed her lips tightly and didn’t say a word. When he tried to put his hand on her lap, she pushed it away heartlessly.
“Do you want to die of total exhaustion?” Lien hissed.
Kŏnsŏk smiled faintly. He hadn’t eaten anything since he had come back from Tra Tinh. He had even thrown up the eggs he had eaten on the way back from Tra Tinh. His last meal was some bread he had eaten in the car on his way to visit Lui.
Lien went out and soon came back with a tray. She brought a bowl of soup she had made by boiling chicken broth with bamboo shoots in it. After putting the tray on a table, she grabbed him by his collar and propped his body up forcefully.
Kŏnsŏk shook his head and said, “I don’t have an appetite.”
“Are you planning on leaving a single woman to die alone?”
“Do you want to marry me?”
Kethon, this was the first time he mentioned this word meaning marriage. The word had been taboo between them until now.
“I won’t let you die until that happens.”
Lien pretended to be calm, but she was blushing. Perhaps, because she was aware of it, she glared at Kŏnsŏk and thrust the spoon into his mouth.
“Don’t you know you have to eat something before you take medicine?” she said.
Only after he had finished most of the soup did Lien release him so he could finally lie on her lap after taking his medicine. Warmth he had never experienced before dampened his cheeks. There was no warmth in his memories of his mother. There wasn’t even a single photograph of him taken on his 100th day celebration or his first birthday. It was only when he looked through the things left by his brother that he realized he actually had a few family photos. He was clearly present in the family photo, his brother’s one remaining possession, but there was something unfamiliar in that scene. His mother and brother stood on either side of Kŏnsŏk, who stood in front of the college entrance ceremony hall with f...