The shadows against the wall hang long, accompanied by the soft sound of a pen scratching, the clacking of keyboard keys, and the occasional sigh or two echoing through the small enclosed space.
“What about a long-tailed macaque?”
“List it. We can probably make a good case for it.”
From the large floor-to-ceiling windows of Jeong’s Law Firm, Sooyoung can see the lights on at Woori Bank opposite them - they’re so close that she can even see the dark figures of the employees moving around and working at their cubicle, despite the late hour.
By now, it’s just Sooyoung and Haseul left in the office, watching the clock on the wall tick their sleeping hours away as they work on what is probably their firm’s biggest divorce case ever.
“Fennec foxes, sugar gliders, zebras ?” Haseul slaps the file on the table. “You gotta be kidding me.”
“Wait till you see what the husband is demanding as settlement.”
“I can’t imagine,” says Haseul. She looks around their empty office and stretches, her bones popping with each twist of her body. “I can’t do this. I’m starting to see double. Coffee?”
“I’ll go with you.”
One month after landing this giant case, Sooyoung already wants to die. Two weeks of surviving on less than four hours of sleep can do that to a person.
Following Haseul into the pantry, the both of them sigh as the aromatic scent of coffee hits their nose, and they gulp down the strong liquid.
“You know, I think I’m tapping out after this,” Sooyoung says. “I need more than a short nap if I’m going to actually be able to fight the case next week.”
“Yeah, go ahead. I’m just going to finish listing those exotic pets and see which ones we can fight custody for before I leave.” Even with the coffee, Haseul yawns loudly. “Seriously, we don’t get paid enough for this.”
“We’re junior lawyers. This is what life is supposed to look like for the next five years until we get promoted.”
Haseul groans theatrically. Sooyoung laughs.
Rinsing their cups, they head back into the workspace. But while Haseul sinks down into the seat, Sooyoung slings her bag over her shoulder and waves to Haseul.
“See you tomorrow.”
Haseul hums and waves her away.
Hailing a cab from the side of the road, Sooyoung clambers into the rear and lets out a loud sigh as her back hits the soft leather seats. Finally. Maybe today will be the night she will actually catch a full night’s sleep.
Her landlady is already asleep by the time Sooyoung returns home. She creeps in as quietly as she can, and takes a quick shower before falling into her mattress and drifting off into sleep almost instantly.
Sooyoung dreams. She dreams of happier times, of a childhood spent in idyllic Busan, summers of water gun fights with the other kids in the neighbourhood.
There’s one kid in particular - Junho - who’s relentless. He chases Sooyoung down to the back of her house with his Super Soaker and sprays her: first with drops, then a jet, and then an entire torrent of water blasting at Sooyoung till she jolts out of bed and falls onto the floor.
Sooyoung wakes up, and her ceiling collapses on her.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
As it turns out, it is entirely possible for ceilings to collapse from water damage. This is something Sooyoung learns from eavesdropping on her landlady’s angry call with building management, as she demands for someone to come over and fix the problem immediately.
She’s trying hard not to laugh herself. After all, it’s not everyday when your entire ceiling is sagging like a waterlogged stack of papers, only because your neighbour fell asleep while running the bath.
Her landlady, on the other hand, is a very furious middle-aged woman, and so Sooyoung wisely decides to swallow her laughter in favour of saving whatever few effects she has lying about in her room.
“The whole lot of you are useless!” Her landlady screams in frustration before turning to Sooyoung. “I’m sorry Miss, but you’re going to have to find somewhere else to live. I’ll refund half your rent for this month.”
Sooyoung’s figured that part out already, at the very least. Taking out her phone from her pocket, she calls the first person that comes to mind.
Jiwoo picks up on the first ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me. I need to ask you a favour. My ceiling collapsed, and I need a new place to live… like tonight. Do you know anyone who might be letting out a room?”
Jiwoo takes a moment - Sooyoung holds her breath as she waits. If Jiwoo, 5,000 Facebook friends Jiwoo, can’t help her, she’s pretty much out of options. She might just have to check into a hotel while she continues her search for new lodgings.
“Actually yeah,” Jiwoo says finally. “I know someone letting out a room, only…”
“She lives with three kids. They’re like seven, five and one.”
Oh. Sooyoung doesn’t know how to feel about that. While she doesn’t have a problem with children - adores them, even - the idea of living with three children below the age of ten is daunting.
“You can move in as soon as you want though, and the rent is cheap. 500,000 won per month with utilities and internet included.”
That’s… 200,000 won cheaper than her current apartment. She can’t say that it isn’t attractive.
“Okay, I’ll take it,” she says. “Do you think you guys can come help me move?”
“Sure, we’ll be over in an hour.”
She calls her office next.
“Hi Jaden, sorry - I need to take today off urgently. My ceiling collapsed and I need to figure out some new living arrangements.”
There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. Sooyoung can imagine Jaden parsing this information, his nostrils flared in frustration as he considers the fact that the firm will be one woman down today.
“Fine,” he says, before the line goes dead and Sooyoung is left listening foolishly to the beep.
By the time Jiwoo and Jungeun arrive, Sooyoung has packed her entire life up into her two suitcases she brought with her up from Busan.
“Is this all?” Jiwoo asks in amazement as they load the suitcases into Jungeun’s trunk.
“I don’t buy a lot of things…”
“Come on guys,” interrupts Jungeun. “No chit-chatting. I need to return this car before my dad realises that his baby is gone.”
They clamber in, and Jungeun takes off quickly. She’s a terrible driver. Sooyoung is left clinging onto the back of the driver’s seat for dear life as Jungeun - finally - skids to a halt at a block of off-white apartment complexes, nested neatly against each other.
“How the hell did you even get your licence? I almost died!” Sooyoung crawls out of the back, her legs wobbling.
To her credit, Jungeun looks sheepish. “I only passed my driving test because the tester was so sick of seeing me over and over again.”
Jiwoo and Jungeun lead her to the nearest apartment block, the one with the giant number 77 painted on its side. They head up to the 17th floor and round the side to the unit overlooking the road. It looks nice. Classy. The black wooden door set into the white surroundings gives it a modern charm.
Jungeun presses the bell.
The door flies open and a small child stares at them balefully.
“Hi Hyunjin, is your aunt in?”
“Depends.” The child eyes the three of them. “Why are you asking?”
Jungeun crouches. “This is Sooyoung. She’s going to be living with you from now on.”
Sooyoung feels a shiver down her spine as the girl glares at her.
They’re interrupted - thankfully - by the patter of feet and a surprisingly young woman appears, carrying a gurgling baby in her arms.
“Hyunjin! What did I say about opening doors?” She turns to them, looking flustered. “Sorry, I didn’t expect you guys to arrive so early. Hi, I’m Jinsol,” she says, smiling at Sooyoung. “I would shake your hand, but it’s probably covered in drool now. Come in, come in.”
The apartment itself is spacious. Painted in soft pastels, the walls have animal stickers pasted all over them - a cat, some fruit bats, and even little green frogs dance across it. A large TV plays a cartoon while another little girl sits on the floor, head turned to them in wonder.
“Aunty Jungeun!” The girl bounds over and grabs Jungeun’s hand. “I drew you and Aunty Jiwoo.”
Sooyoung watches as the girl drags Jungeun away to join her on the floor, where a large piece of drawing paper and several scattered crayons wait.
Meanwhile, Jinsol leads them deep into the house. “This is Hyunjin and Yerim’s room,” she says, pointing to the first room on the left. The inside are painted in a cheery yellow, and twin cots line either side of the wall, with a box full of toys chucked into a corner. It’s exactly what Sooyoung expects a child’s room to look like.
“This is the master bedroom,” continues Jinsol. “Yeojin sleeps with me in here.” She bounces the baby in her arms and coos at her.
The third room is located away from the other rooms in the house. “Here is your room,” says Jinsol. “It’s a little bit out of the way, but I thought it would be better like that. Less noise.”
Sooyoung appreciates the gesture. She smiles. “It looks great, thank you. I can sign the contract right now.”
“Of course. Let me just get it.” Jinsol disappears back into the house, leaving Jiwoo and Sooyoung staring at her room.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Jiwoo asks. “It’s actually a really good place, it’s just difficult because three kids get too much for most people.”
Sooyoung runs a hand over the cupboard. The room itself is nice. It’s spacious, just like the rest of the house, and it has all the furniture she could need. A cupboard, a bed, a table. Perfect. At this point, the kids are a mere afterthought.
“Yeah, I think I could get used to this,” says Sooyoung.
With the contract signed, and Jungeun pried away - with much difficulty - from Yerim, the house finally seems to settle into its normal state.
Sooyoung is just about applying the finishing touches to her unpacked room when there is a knock on her door and a small head pokes around the door.
“Aunty Jinsol wants to know if you’re hungry,” says the girl, Yerim.
As if on cue, Sooyoung’s stomach growls. “A bit, yeah.”
“Okay.” Yerim takes a careful step into the room. “I’m Yerim,” she says, extending her hand to shake like a little adult.
Charmed, Sooyoung crouches and takes her hand. “I’m Sooyoung. It’s nice to meet you, Yerim.”
“How old are you?” wonders the girl. “Are you as old as Aunty Jinsol?”
“How old is Aunty Jinsol?”
“She’s…” Yerim holds up seven fingers. “She’s 24!”
Sooyoung laughs. “Yes, we’re the same age.”
Then, another head pokes around. “Aunty Jinsol wants you,” says the older child, Hyunjin. She ignores Sooyoung.
“Okay,” calls Yerim. She turns back and waves to Sooyoung. “Bye.” The two of them patter their way back into the main part of the house.
Figuring she might as well get to know her new landlord, Sooyoung emerges and wanders out to the living room. There’s no one there, but the TV is still on, and Yerim’s art supplies are still scattered over the floor.
There’s a bubble of noise from the kitchen, however, and so Sooyoung follows it to its source. Through the doorway, she spies Jinsol, busy putting together sandwiches as Yerim and Hyunjin clamor for snacks instead.
“I told you, the only snacks allowed in this house are carrot and celery sticks,” says Jinsol, clicking her tongue at the children.
“Not fair! Heejin’s mom lets her eat french fries!”
“That’s Heejin’s mom. Heejin’s mom also makes her attend extra math classes. Do you want that too?”
Yeojin is giggling happily on her own in the high chair, swinging her little fists all over; Yerim is trying to climb all over the counter before Jinsol picks her up and puts her back on the ground.
“Behave. I’ll give you extra TV time if you stay still.”
“But I want to help make Aunty Sooyoung sandwiches too!”
“Only if you wash your hands.”
Sooyoung can’t help but smile. Silently, she walks back out of the kitchen to her room, not wanting to disturb the peace of the little family. After all, she figures, if they need her, they know where to look.
One week in, the first thing that Sooyoung learns about living with children is that viruses spread. Fast .
It starts with Yerim waking up one day with a cough and a sniffly nose.
“Uh-oh,” says Jinsol, putting her hand on Yerim’s forehead. “Looks like you might have a fever. You’ll have to stay home today.”
She rummages through the cupboards from the thermometer as Sooyoung wolfs down her twin slices of bread.
Jinsol sticks the thermometer in Yerim’s mouth and frowns as the machine beeps. “38 degrees… Yeah, you’re going to straight to bed after this.”
“And I can get ice-cream?”
Jinsol considers the proposition. “Only if you’re good.”
“No fair, I want to be sick too.”
Yerim sticks out her tongue at Hyunjin. But before it can escalate into a fight, Jinsol steps right between them. “Come on, Hyunjin. The school bus is arriving any minute now.”
“I can take her,” Sooyoung offers. “I’m going down anyway.”
“Really? I don’t want to bother you…”
“It’s no bother at all. I’m going down too, and you need to put Yerim to bed.”
“Only if you’re sure,” says Jinsol, but she looks relieved.
Sooyoung slings her bag over her shoulder. “Ready?” She watches as Hyunjin sullenly slinks off, carrying her backpack and shuffling her feet.
She catches up to Hyunjin at the lift landing, but the girl ignores her. Nothing new. Ever since Sooyoung moved in, Hyunjin has barely spoken a word to her, choosing instead to communicate via glares and grunts.
Haseul’s working theory is that Hyunjin hates having to share her house with a stranger, while Jiwoo merely assures her that Hyunjin would warm up to her in no time.
Whatever it is, Hyunjin isn’t talking to her and Sooyoung can respect that. So while Hyunjin walks steadily ahead, Sooyoung merely follows her from the back, far enough to be walking separately, but near enough to keep her in sight.
While Hyunjin waits at the pick-up point with the other kids, Sooyoung waits a distance away. Only when the bus arrives, and she watches Hyunjin make her waddling way up the bus does she finally turn away and jog towards her own bus stop.
When she returns past midnight, she’s surprised to find the house in a crisis. Jinsol is hurrying around like a flustered mother hen, while Yeojin wails.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Yeojin’s sick too,” sighs Jinsol. “Yerim is too hot to sleep, and they’re all disturbing Hyunjin.”
“Let me check in with Yerim,” offers Sooyoung.
“No, it’s fine. You’re tired. I’ll handle it.”
“Jinsol, you’re exhausted. Let me help.”
Jinsol looks torn, but after a long stare-off, she finally caves. “Thank you,” she whispers.
Sooyoung only takes a moment to put her bag down in her room and strip off her jacket before she goes to Hyunjin’s and Yerim’s shared room, only to find Hyunjin reading in a lit room, with Yerim in a temper.
“Yerim? What’s wrong?”
“It’s hot,” the girl whines. “It’s hot when I lie down, but it’s cold when I sit up.”
Sooyoung kneels in front of Yerim’s bed and feels her forehead. She’s burning up. “Did you see the doctor today?”
“I’m getting you some medicine. Stay there.” She exits the room and bumps into Jinsol who’s bouncing Yeojin in her arms as the baby wails.
“How’s Yerim?” asks Jinsol worriedly.
“Feverish. How’s Yeojin?”
“She’s really hot too. I don’t know if I should bring them to the hospital.” There’s a large crease in between Jinsol’s eyebrows, which makes her lines in her face even more prominent.
It takes Sooyoung a moment, but between a tomato-red Yeojin, a stressed Jinsol, and the bottle of cough syrup in her hands, she makes a decision.
“You should take Yeojin to the hospital. Don’t worry about Yerim and Hyunjin. I’ll stay here and look after them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Fevers are dangerous in babies,” she says, and that’s enough to convince Jinsol.
They quickly call a taxi and bundle Jinsol and Yeojin off, while Sooyoung returns to the bedroom to check on Yerim and Hyunjin. Yerim has grown sleepy, and is dozing with the blankets off, while Hyunjin reads.
“Hyunjin, you have school tomorrow.”
Hyunjin ignores her.
“You’re not my mom.”
“I’m not, but I’m here to make sure you sleep now because your aunt is taking Yeojin to the hospital.” Sooyoung walks over and crouches down in front of Hyunjin. “Don’t make things harder for your aunt, okay? She’s going to have a hard time waking you up tomorrow if you’re tired.”
Reluctantly, Hyunjin puts her book away and pulls the covers up to her chin.
“Goodnight,” says Sooyoung and flicks the lights off. With the kids settled, she heaves a deep sigh of relief and heads to the bathroom, ready to wash off the grime and exhaustion from today.
Three days later, Yerim is well enough to attend school; but this time, it’s Hyunjin who’s missing from the breakfast table.
“Sick.” Jinsol shakes her head. “It’s really one after the other.”
Yeojin, too, looks a lot better. While she’s still recovering, she’s well enough to blubber and throw her toys around the room, which is a relief.
“You’re going to stay at home to take care of her?”
“I have to,” says Jinsol. “I’m just glad Vivi is so understanding.”
Vivi, her boss, is the only person Jinsol gushes about on a regular basis. She’s just so understanding and pretty and kind, according to Jinsol, and Sooyoung is starting to suspect that her landlord has a massive crush on her boss.
They quickly finish eating, and Sooyoung lets Yerim cling on her hand as they head downstairs to pick-up point. With so many sick children, Sooyoung has temporarily taken over the duty of sending the healthy ones to school.
It’s not like she minds. It’s just sending them downstairs and waiting for the bus to pick them up after all.
But unlike Hyunjin, Yerim is chatty. She asks Sooyoung all sorts of things as they descend the elevator - how do elevators move, why is wood brown, and why do butterflies like flowers. All good questions, but sometimes beyond Sooyoung’s ability to answer.
So she lets out a long breath when they reach the pick-up point, and Yerim sees a friend there.
Hyejoo - and a man who appears to be her father - turn.
“Oh, Yerim, you’re here too,” says the man. Then his gaze moves to Sooyoung and his eyebrows furrow.
“This is Aunty Sooyoung! She’s living with us now!”
“You must be Jinsol’s new tenant,” the man says.
“Yes. Hyunjin is sick today, so I’m helping to send Yerim to school.”
“I’m Jonghyun.” He extends his hand.
They stand in awkward silence as Yerim and Hyejoo talk. Sooyoung fidgets. She’s never wanted to get to work more.
“So how is everything?” Jonghyun finally says, after an eternity. “I know the kids can be quite a handful.”
“Oh, they’re great. Just really sweet,” says Sooyoung. Her eyes can’t help but drift to Yerim and she smiles.
“That’s good. Most of Jinsol’s previous tenants moved out because they couldn’t deal with the children. Too rowdy for them, they say.”
Sooyoung is actually surprised. While Hyunjin can be surly and Yerim can be overenthusiastic, she can’t imagine being scared off by them. They’re just children.
The school bus honks and pulls to a stop in front of them. Sooyoung watches as all the children and parents - including Hyejoo and Jonghyun - lean in for hugs and kisses, and she does a double-take when Yerim tugs at her pant leg and stretches her arms upwards.
“Hug,” Yerim insists.
Everyone is waiting for Yerim. Feeling the stares of the parents and children on her, Sooyoung leans in, lets Yerim wrap her tiny arms around her neck and land a large wet kiss on her cheek.
“Bye bye Aunty Sooyoung!” Yerim waves and runs after the other children into the bus.
Pressing her hand to her cheek, Sooyoung waves slowly back, the corners of her mouth tugging into a lopsided smile.
It’s Jinsol’s turn on Friday. Sooyoung wakes up to find Jinsol wearing a mask and sniffling even as the children stare at their aunt warily.
“You’re sick,” Sooyoung says.
“Thanks. I didn’t know that."
Sooyoung glances at the kids - they look just as bewildered as she is.
They let Jinsol bang around the house for a bit more before Sooyoung puts her foot down. “You’re going to bed,” she says, taking the pan and spatula from Jinsol.
“You can’t do that to me in my own house.”
Sooyoung presses a hand to Jinsol’s forehead instead. “You’re burning up. Take these - ” she stuffs a pack of paracetamol into her hands “- and go to sleep.”
“But the kids - ”
“We’ll be fine, right?” Yerim and Hyunjin nod. “I’ll cook breakfast for them and send them to school, don’t worry. You just focus on sleeping.”
Jinsol protests again, but this time, the combined persuasion from Sooyoung and kids is enough to cow her and send her straight to her room to bed.
Once they’re properly sure that Jinsol has fallen asleep, Sooyoung turns to the kids and says: “Okay, who wants cereal?”
Sooyoung wakes with an aching head and sore body on Sunday. The sun is already high in the sky, the light streaming through her windows and falling on her face. She takes one step out of bed and slips .
“Sooyoung?” Jinsol and the three kids peer in through the crack in her door. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just dizzy.” It’s strange. She could have sworn that she went to sleep early last night, after feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on.
Jinsol helps her up. Pauses. Then touches her forehead.
“You’re having a fever,” she says.
Oh great. “Nooo,” Sooyoung moans. “I have work to do today.”
“No work. You’re going to have some food, medicine, and then you’re going back to sleep.” Jinsol pushes her back to the bed. “Stay.”
With minimal protest - because honestly Sooyoung’s head is pounding way too hard to fight - Jinsol tucks Sooyoung in and hands her a thermometer. Sooyoung puts it in her mouth and waits.
“Hyunjin, go get a cup of water.”
The girl grumbles, but pads off. Meanwhile, Yerim and Yeojin are hanging out in Sooyoung’s room, Yeojin crawling all over the floor and furniture, while Yerim places her hands on Sooyoung’s forehead and peers at her.
“You have a fever, Aunty Sooyoung,” says Yerim.
“Yes, and she’ll need lots of rest and quiet. Can you do that, Yerim?”
The girl nods. Grabbing Yeojin’s hand, she tugs her sister out of the room, ignoring Yeojin’s whine. It’s going to dissolve into a quarrel, and - right on cue - Yeojin begins wailing.
Sooyoung’s thermometer beeps, and the both of them lean over to peer at it. Their faces are inches apart, Sooyoung suddenly realises, and she jerks back.
“Hmm… 38.6. That’s really high.” Jinsol clicks her tongue. “You should get some sleep. You have everything you need?”
“Yeah… Everything. Thanks.” Her face is hot.
Jinsol smiles. “Okay, rest then.”
Sooyoung closes her eyes and sleeps.
She drifts in and out of consciousness. Once, she wakes to the feeling of something wet and cold on her forehead, and the murmur of people talking. The second time, it’s to tiny hands grabbing at her arm.
The third time she wakes, she’s alone; her head feels clear, and it seems her fever has completely broke. It’s seven, and her stomach is growling.
She emerges into the warm orange glow of the living room. Jinsol, Hyunjin, Yerim, and Yeojin are seated around the dining table in a rare moment of calm, eating a dinner of rice, chicken, and vegetables.
They’re listening to Hyunjin tell them about school, something about rubbing a bully’s face in the dirt, and Jinsol is trying not to smile as she warns Hyunjin against using violence. Yeojin and Yerim are both talking animatedly in their own baby language, Yeojin babbling and Yerim talking nonsense back at her.
She’s suddenly taken over a spate of coughing, and four heads swivel to look at her.
“Aunty Sooyoung!” Yerim jumps up and clings to Sooyoung’s arm. “You’re up.”
She drags her to the table where there’s an empty seat.
“I made you some dinner, but I wasn’t sure if you’d be well enough for it,” Jinsol says, eyeing her.
“No, it looks great.” She’s ravenous. Within five minutes, she inhales all the food on the table, and looks up to see Jinsol and the kids watching her. “Sorry,” she says, sheepish.
Jinsol bursts out laughing first. Then the kids follow, and in that instant, the house feels alive, full . It’s a far cry from the cold nights in her previous apartment, where her landlady stays out all day and night, and is only ever home when she brings her other old friends to come party.
It’s the empty rooms and darkened hallways that she doesn’t miss, and Sooyoung smiles and thinks to herself: maybe this isn’t so bad after all.