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FICTION

[Excerpt] The School Nurse Files

  • onJune 17, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byChung Serang
The School Nurse Files
Tr. Shin Hyebin
2015

Chapter 8: The Newcomer

It had been a while since a new kid transferred to M High. Like a lady in an old portrait that embodied classic beauty, she had a round face and rosy lips that would go well with a hanbok or, truth be told, any traditional outfit from any culture around the world. Word got around fast that the newcomer didn’t have family or relatives and lived in an institution. How did information like that leak and spread so fast? 

School nurse Ahn Eunyoung was quick to check if everything was okay whenever a new kid came. For some reason this school attracted strange things, so it might turn into a huge problem if she didn’t screen for trouble first. This new kid didn’t look peculiar at first glance. The girl nodded a greeting when her eyes met Eunyoung’s, which Eunyoung took as a gesture of politeness.

During the lunch break, the newcomer visited the nurse’s office, not the cafeteria, where there were other kids. Eunyoung felt a little anxious when the newcomer didn’t say anything when she asked what brought her here, but just waited for other students to leave.

When the last kid left the office, the girl sat straight on the chair right across Eunyoung. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Baek Hyemin.”

Yes, I can see your name tag, Eunyoung’s face seemed to say as she waited for what came next.

“And I catch bugs.”

“What kind of bugs?”

“They’re a type of itch mite.”

“Itch mite?”

The newcomer stopped trying to explain and produced a small tin can, which looked like a case for paper soap. She picked up something transparent and alive in there with her thumb and forefinger.

“This is the bug.”

The bug looked to be no more than a faint current of air to Eunyoung. She tried hard to identify it, but she couldn’t see anything but the subtle squirming.

“It doesn’t look clear even to you, does it? That’s why we exist.”

“Does it do any harm?”

“It’s okay if you get it off early, but if it’s attached for too long, it can damage your spirit. After around one hundred days with it, you become fatally ill.”

“Sounds more like a leech.”

“In a sense. Just as harmful and annoying.”

So, there were other things besides those clouds or jellies . . . Eunyoung thought she had seen many things in this world but there were things she had yet to see. She was humbled by this talk with another professional in the field.

“Bugs attach themselves to elbows, shins, or testicles, the parts that hurt a lot when you bump into something.”

“Then how do you remove them?”

“They don’t come off easily, so you need to be really careful. Use your fingertips and pull firmly with just the right amount of force. And remove it slowly, so their legs and stingers don’t end up stuck there.”

“And then?”

Hyemin put the bug wriggling between her fingers into her mouth. Before Eunyoung could stop her, she heard a popping sound. It sounded crunchy, as if some shell had cracked in her mouth. Hyemin didn’t chew more than a few times before swallowing it.

“They die only in the stomach acid of bug eaters.”

“Oh, the acid . . .”

“This school is swarming with bugs. That’s why I transferred here.”

“So it’s bad, right?”

“Bugs don’t have any will of their own so you can’t say they’re evil. But they can be an ominous sign of a bad thing coming if there are this many.”

The round-faced girl went back to the classroom after she bowed and said, “It was very nice to meet you, Nurse Ahn.” It was indeed an amicable and beneficial kind of first encounter, except the image of a cute girl swallowing a squirming bug replayed over and over in Eunyoung’s head.

“You mean that girl over there? But she’s perfectly normal.” Inpyo was puzzled when Eunyoung pointed at Hyemin from afar. She reiterated that she was pointing at the right girl, and that she definitely saw her swallowing a bug, which he wouldn’t believe at first.

“Well, bad things have been happening lately. All because of those bugs, huh? Wait, do I have one on me?” Inpyo meticulously shook off his clothes.

“Not a single bug or whatever can come within five meters of you,” Eunyoung snorted and pondered on the accident that happened a day before: an M High student had been struck by the mailman’s motorcycle. Was that a bug, too?

The man, in his forties and well-known as a “gentleman on motorcycle,” was such a slow driver when he delivered mail. That day, the boy was playing with a tennis ball on a driveway on a slight incline, when he stepped backward for no reason and was somehow hit by, or rather became tangled with, the mailman’s motorcycle that couldn’t have been going any slower than it was. The mailman received only some light scratches while the boy tore his ligament. 
A bad day for both of them. So did the bug do it? Did it attach itself to his ligament? 

“No way, she’s just a girl who goes to the snack bar a lot to stuff her face with food.” Inpyo wouldn’t believe Eunyoung after all those incidents that happened at school.

But he was right about what he’d seen; Baek Hyemin did go to the snack bar quite often. It didn’t take much time for her to make friends with many kids (maybe they instinctively noticed Hyemin was a beneficial creature to be around). She was often seen hanging around with different squads of kids and different snacks in her mouth. Each time she ran into Eunyoung, she nodded a greeting, looking a little embarrassed.

And the girl often came to the nurse’s office for antacid. “It says it has a strawberry flavor, but it tastes nothing like strawberry. What a fallacious claim,” Hyemin grunted as she squeezed the tube.

“Kids these days don’t talk like that.”

“Oh, I see. That’s why they thought I was fun.”

“Why don’t you stop snacking for a while? It’s not good for your health.” It was understandable since kids liked something sweeter or saltier than the school meals, but Eunyoung worried that the institution wasn’t feeding her well.

“But I’m perfectly fine.”

“But you eat too much unhealthy food. Those bugs are far from a healthy diet, aren’t they?”

“There are too many bugs here and that’s why my stomach produces too much acid. They just keep coming in. And if you eat bugs when your stomach is empty, you get heartburn. That’s why I go to the snack bar! It’s not because I like the snacks there,” Hyemin insisted but Eunyoung thought, That’s a fallacious claim.

“You should take care of your health.”

“I’m not human, after all.”

“What? You’re not human?”

“No, I’m not.”

“But you look exactly like a human. Even to me.”

“But I’m not.”

“How come you’re not?”

“Because I came into being out of nothing.”

Eunyoung stared at Hyemin with a blank look. Hyemin unwillingly continued with her explanation.

“I was literally born out of nowhere. I don’t have parents. I woke up one day, and there I was. I’m always born around here, within a radius of 23.8 square meters. Though the districts have changed a lot over time.”

“When were you born for the first time?”

“As far as I remember, during the Three Kingdoms period. I was first born in Baekje.”

Eunyoung seriously wondered if she had to add honorifics when talking to this ancient figure. “Then . . . how many times have you been born since then?”

“I’m not born over and over again. I tend to be born when there’s a bug outbreak. So, this is the forty-eighth or forty-ninth time, I guess.”

“Then, is there anyone who tells you where to go and what to do?”

Hyemin smiled like she’d sensed some expectation from Eunyoung’s voice. Eunyoung stared at her smiling lips, thinking this ancient girl, who’d been reborn so many times, wouldn’t need any lip tint.

“There’s no such thing. You and I are all just a part of the system. I realized that when I learned about computers. Patches fix bugs. And we’re the patch. 
I catch the mites, you slay the evil spirits, and that’s how we fix errors in this world. I didn’t notice this until recently, but as for patches like me, their function is more like what an NPC does in a game.”

Eunyoung had secretly hoped, if she worked hard to help and protect other people, then someday god-like figures who had long, white beards or wore their long hair in a bun would come and free her, saying, “You have served well. Now you can enjoy the rest of your life.” She knew it couldn’t come true, but she was still somewhat depressed when Hyemin confirmed it.

“Anyway, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ve got two and a half years left.”

“For what?”

“My life span.”

“No way!”

“In my penultimate birth, twenty years was not that short for one’s life span. Twenty years without getting wiped out in an epidemic. Well, it may seem like nothing to kids these days.”

But the system wasn’t aware of that. Since it wasn’t upgraded, it didn’t extend Hyemin’s life span. Eunyoung couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to live a life that would surely end after twenty years. Normal people die young, too, but it was totally different from facing early deaths that recurred for eternity.

Now it all became clear: there was no one out there who’d save Eunyoung or reward her for staying strong. That evening, Eunyoung went to a fast food restaurant with Hyemin.

 

 

For the all-school morning meeting, M High teachers and students gathered on the school field. Eunyoung had skipped the meeting a couple of times, thinking no one would notice, but ended up getting caught and being cautioned. So she decided not to play hooky anymore. If it was an indoor meeting broadcast to the classrooms, she would’ve been able to slack off a bit. The weather couldn’t be better every time they had the meeting on the school field.

The principal’s speech was completely boring. Some things hadn’t changed the slightest bit in decades. Eunyoung thought someone should come up with workshop programs for school principals on how to make fun speeches, or policies that at least limited the length of their speeches. Maybe fun people did not make it to become a principal. But there must be at least a few principals who had a sense of humor, if not many, so she would have to do some research before applying to another school someday. When she said this to Inpyo, he said, “He’s one of my uncles. Don’t be so mean to him,” which did not sit well with her. Ha, nepotism? Like your family is chaebol or something. She wanted to snap at him but kept eating the desserts he fed her.

When Eunyoung strolled between the rows of students, the first-year kids got nervous but second-years knew all too well that the school nurse was completely harmless and didn’t stop chatting. But Eunyoung didn’t walk around to make the kids stay quiet. It was more like a casual scan, taking a look to see if there was any sign of an unusual activity going on. Eunyoung passed by the back rows of Hyemin’s class and saw the girl working on her thing. Hyemin was standing right behind a boy with a tilted head and drooping shoulder (she must’ve tried hard all morning to get that close to the boy) and was carefully prying off a bug.

“Hey, what are you doing in the boys’ row?” The Law and Politics teacher, who was walking around with a ruler in his hand, found Hyemin in the wrong row. You’d better just leave her, she thought. Eunyoung couldn’t do anything but just watch from afar. She always thought he was a jerk. How could such a jerk teach Law and Politics? That subject is tough to teach even for a great teacher.

“What’s in your mouth?”

“Nothing.”

“Then what’s this on your cheek? How dare you eat snacks during the meeting? Spit it out!”

Hyemin looked very upset. The bug in her mouth that she hadn’t swallowed yet puffed her cheek like a candy and even moved a little. The sound will be loud if she bites it now. Eunyoung held her breath nervously.

But what Hyemin did next was not bite but pull the bug with her tongue between her lips. Eunyoung saw a small lump of tiny waves jump over to the Law and Politics teacher. And the girl faintly smiled while he gave her penalty points. She wouldn’t take it off from the jerk teacher until things became serious.

I should tell her to catch it before he gets into real trouble. Don’t go too far, kid. 

 

 

“Nurse Ahn.” When Baek Hyemin called her with a singsong voice and opened the office door, Eunyoung automatically looked for antacid.

“Not that today. Menstrual cramps.”

“Oh.” So the system gave her a bug-killing stomach and didn’t do anything about her uterus? Eunyoung thought about the loophole in the system. How indifferent, tsk tsk, and inconsiderate, tsk tsk tsk. She gave the girl some painkillers with a cup of water. Eunyoung never bothered to pour water for students.

“This is the first time I was born as a girl.”

“Out of forty-something rounds of rebirth?”

Hyemin stared at Eunyoung, crouching on the bed like a crumpled piece of paper. “Only decades ago, it was impossible for women to roam around the streets and approach another person. And in wartime, they were at greater risk of being raped and murdered. It wasn’t my choice, but I was automatically set to be born as a boy before this time.”

“So, how do you feel about living as a girl?”

“Everything’s new. I like it mostly, except for the menstrual cramps.”

Eunyoung stared at Hyemin, wondering if she’d had the same round face with rosy lips when she was a boy, but didn’t ask because even a girl who ate bugs might be self-conscious about her appearance.

“Back then, I always had this belligerent side to me. When the last day came closer, I fought on the front line. It didn’t matter if anything happened to me at that point, so I was the most reckless young soldier. I have never lived in an era without wars or battles. I could always count on finding a battle nearby when I wanted one. But this time I don’t feel like that.”

“You feel peaceful for the first time. As a girl.”

“Yes.” I want to live. Hyemin’s face was saying it out loud. I want to know what life’s like after the twentieth birthday.

Before they had the talk, Eunyoung had already sensed how Hyemin felt about this round of life and began to find a way to help her. But she wasn’t active in any supernatural communities. Those communities were easily attracted to the dark sides of this world, which eventually turned them into black markets. I have to contact a person I don’t want to contact at all. Her heart gave way under the stress. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Mackenzie responded to her message by coming to the school the following day. Not only that, he showed up in a big fancy car. It was a large sedan that could destroy Inpyo’s car in a collision. 

The former native English instructor got out of his car. He was wearing a jacket—it looked all new and shiny—made of unborn calf leather, which indeed showed his character; he had the ability to look beyond what others saw, but picked a jacket made of calves pulled out from the cow’s womb before they were ready to be born. Those who don’t have such abilities could be quite indifferent about items produced by such cruel manufacturing processes or cars that burned too much oil. But for someone who saw things so clearly, he obviously made the worst choice. Others would say he looked great now but Eunyoung could see that the clouds around him had grown much murkier since the last time they met, which wasn’t that long ago. She couldn’t bear the dark energies of a person who didn’t believe in morals or rules, who didn’t have any values to live by.

“Who’s that bastard?” Hyemin sighed. Mackenzie came close to her without any words of greetings. He opened her mouth and shined the flashlight of his smartphone inside. Hyemin twisted her head in protest but he didn’t let go of her.

“Bug eater?” Mackenzie frowned.

“Can you take it off? Whatever part that makes her a bug eater, so she can live like a normal person.”

“It’s impossible. She isn’t human. Even my seeds can’t do anything about it. Unless you have her stomach removed or something.” Mackenzie stepped back from the bug eater apathetically.

“Isn’t there any other way? Does it cost a lot?” Inpyo tried to bargain with him.

“Hey, Mr. Hong, I’m offended. I’m not all about money. You think I’m capitalism personified ’cause I’m from America?”

Eunyoung felt upset for her relatives who had immigrated to the US. I don’t like you only because you keep making the worst choices, not because of any community you belong to. This hatred is very precisely directed at you personally. It doesn’t spread to other people but targets only you. I feel friendly toward millions of Korean expatriates across the world except I hate you because you do harm to other people. That’s all. There’s no room for any excuses or explanations. Eunyoung made her hostility sharply point at Mackenzie. Hatred would usually bring her guilt and self-censorship, but not if it was directed at Mackenzie. It even felt somewhat gratifying and liberating to hate Mackenzie.

“Well, I can try. What do you say to . . . two hundred million won? Nobody wants to treat bug eaters. The number of bug eaters has decreased recently, and that’s why bed bugs have swept across New York and killer ticks hit Japan. Only a few people can handle this. It could cost a little more than two hundred million, but I’ll try my best to stick to the base rate.” Mackenzie made his offer and stood there all smiles. The other three stood in silence for a while, each pondering on the two hundred million won in their own way.

“I won’t take this. I could just die and then I’ll be born again. It’s not a big deal. I don’t want to get you into any trouble.”

“Just wait a second,” Inpyo said, calming down Hyemin who was seized with bewilderment. He gave a little nod to Mackenzie as he tried to come up with a way to raise 200 million won without letting his family members know. They must have some secret fund like any other private foundation. What if I sell some of Mother’s paintings? I don’t think they would notice if just one or two go missing. But I can’t make that money with small ones . . . Inpyo made a list in his head as Mackenzie gave him his account number. 

“I like account numbers. They have this rhythm to them when you say them aloud so you can memorize them easily, don’t you think?”

This time Mackenzie left the school without grabbing Inpyo’s belt. The three of them remained silent until his car with well-tinted windows made a turn too imprudent for a sedan and pulled out of the school. 

“I can come up with the money somehow. The problem is whether we can trust him,” Inpyo said.

Baek Hyemin expressed her refusal once again. “It’s totally fine with me. If I live longer, I’ll have to study for college, get a job . . . whoa, there are so many things. I can’t take your money.” 

Eunyoung, who had been strangely quiet until then, flashed a wicked smile Inpyo had never seen before. “That bastard, he thinks he’s super smart but he’s such an idiot. Don’t you ever think of giving him a single penny. We’ve already got what we need.”

Author's Profile

Chung Serang (b. 1984) debuted in 2010 with the story “Dream, Dream, Dream” in the SF fantasy magazine Fantastique. Her first novel, Show Me Your Snaggletooth, incorporated stories ranging from science fiction to the historical. Her second novel, Hana from Earth, was an ecological SF love story. She received the Changbi Prize in Fiction in 2013 for As Close as This and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2017 for Fifty People. Her other popular works include Jaein, Jaewook, Jaehoon, a story about three siblings with minor superpowers, and School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung, a story about a school nurse who performs exorcisms. Her latest novel, From Sisun, comes out in June 2020. She has also published two short collections: See You on the Rooftop and I’ll Give You My VoiceAs Close as This (CUON, 2015) and Fifty People (Akishobo, 2018) have been translated into Japanese. School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung has been published in Japan (Akishobo, 2020) and Taiwan (The Commercial Press, 2020), and is set to air as a Netflix Korea Original, titled The School Nurse Files, in 2020.