Seoul—a city that never sleeps.

At the time I was born, thirty years ago, that phrase was just a metaphor for how vibrant the city’s markets and clubs were in the deepest of the nights. At three a.m., many bars remained open in the crowded pockets of the metropolis and overflowed with “salarymen” and students who partied like there was no tomorrow. Also at three a.m., the day began for the wholesale and retail workers, starting with the fish markets. From there, vitality gradually spread through the roads that functioned like veins, carrying the city’s lifeblood: the energy, the purpose, the livelihood of a fourth of the population of the entire country of South Korea.

Are there bigger cities in the world?

Yes, of course. Tokyo, Jakarta, and Delhi have more people. Beijing, Moscow, and Bangkok are larger in terms of area.

But are there any other cities in which the spirit of a country is so extremely concentrated? I don’t know for sure, since there is no objective way to measure the amount of “spirit” and how “extremely concentrated” it is—but I’d wager that it’s rare. For hundreds of years, since the age of kings, Seoul has been the center of culture. And it has been special for thousands of years before that, when multiple dynasties reigned this part of the world, and Seoul (with a different name back then) wasn’t the capital of the nation, yet.

Mountains in the back. A long, wide river in the front. No earthquakes. No disastrous direct hits by hurricanes. Rich animal and plant life. Rich ocean life with coasts to the South, West, and East. Clear four seasons. (Though nowadays, that’s changing dramatically, and people argue that there are no spring and autumn anymore, just a really long summer and a really long winter.)

No wonder people crowd the place. And no wonder there’s so much spirit.

Over the decades, the city’s perpetual insomnia has become quite literal. First, it began with the lights. The glow, the shine, the blinding force didn’t just stay underground in the pubs or in the large halls displaying the day’s freshest catch. The light took over the entire city:

On display boards that glowed in red, blue, yellow, and green, showing the estimated time of arrival as well as the level of crowdedness within every single color-coded bus that stopped at a particular station.

On the store signs that crammed the external walls of the buildings, sometimes from top to bottom, in every imaginable neon color in existence.

And through the street lamps in the alleys. In the core regions, alleys without a single street lamp have become rare.

But it isn’t just the light that makes the city so wakeful. Its sleeplessness stems from its eyes. You see, you can add a ridiculous amount of light to a place and still it wouldn’t be called “awake” if no one were there to use that light to see something.

That is why I am so proud of my job. I am one of the many eyes. I observe the activities that most people assume the night veils with its dark blanket.

I am a security camera watcher. Not part of the police, no. I’m employed by a privately-owned company that occasionally works with the government, though. I stay awake while many sleep. I look after those who, on a particular night, choose to roam the streets at odd hours.

Some people work the night shift, just like me, and must walk home after all bus and subway drivers are already in bed. Some others work the early morning shift, in which case the bus and subway drivers haven’t arrived at work for the day yet. Others have completely normal work hours, but today is a remarkably great day or a remarkably terrible day, and they admired or cursed their boss until they couldn’t remember who they were or who their bosses were, and now it’s time to get home—or right back to work.

Whatever the case may be, it is my job to watch them, unbeknownst to them, which would be creepy, did I not mean well. I report the drunk assholes who try to do mean things to passersby. I report the occasional fistfights. And unfortunately, I have so far reported a not insignificant number of hit-and-runs.

The drivers of those cars always think they can get away with a crime, but they never do when I’m involved. As long as they stay within the city, I pull every string I can in order to access the necessary footage to prove their crime. I have friends in the police. And I make friends with convenience store owners. These days, there are—literally—convenience stores on every block. It is a mystery how all of them make a profit. I guess many don’t. Which is why old stores close and new ones sprout up. In which case, I make friends with the new owners.

At that point, I have to go through the usual questions:

What’s your name? Mina Park? Pretty name.

Thirty years old? Not married yet? I cannot understand how a charming young lady like you couldn’t find a suitable man yet. Your skin tone is gorgeous. And your hair, this is how the young ones should keep their hair, instead of dyeing it in every which color. It was fine when ten years ago, kids were going with brown or wine. But nowadays? I’ve seen blue and green hair! Can you believe it? Blue and green! Look how beautiful your black hair is, just as it is. And short. Very neat. Do you ever grow it out? Not since your school years?

Look, my brother’s son is just around your age. Just coffee, maybe?

Which university did you go to? Oh, no university… How are your parents? Oh, no parents… Well, in that case…

And I smile and nod, because there’s no use explaining to them that I have no interest in marriage or finding a “suitable man,” whatever that means. Many people, no matter how “nice” they think they are, are incapable of imagining a life beyond their own. So, they assume you’ll be lonely because they’d be lonely if they didn’t have their big family. And because they hate their jobs, they think others hate them, too, and would quit anytime there was enough money.

Such isn’t the case with me.

I am great at being almost-alone.

And I love my job.

Also, I know: as long as I smile and nod now, later, when needed, they’ll get me that key footage with a clear view of the face of the man who killed someone in a hit-and-run.

So, I smile and nod and wait for them, yearn for them to ask me which university I went to, so that I can tell them that I didn’t go to any, that I’d had to work so that I could support my sister, five years younger. And when I add the part that our parents are dead, usually the owners don’t try to match me up with their nephew or their friend’s nephew or their friend’s friend’s nephew. It’s quite nice, really, because their sudden change of heart makes them feel bad. Then they notice that I’m still nodding and smiling. And the next time I visit, they offer me a free soda, in addition to the footage.

One of the things about me that delights some of the more conservative convenience store owners is this: I never drink. It isn’t because I don’t agree that some drinks taste good. (Soju, I think most people will agree, tastes horrible. It’s pure alcohol, like vodka, only less strong, so you have to drink more of it to get the same effect, which makes things worse. But the more flavorful drinks, well, I can see why some enjoy drinking those. There are as many flavored drinks as there are types of teas, so I understand the appeal of the collector’s mentality: Try this one, try that one, third time’s the charm. If not, just try more until you land on the flavor you like.)

The main reason I don’t drink is that we couldn’t afford to, for the longest time. Sena (my sister) and I were orphaned when I was fifteen and she was ten. Our parents died in a car accident. One day, they were there; the next day, not anymore. Our family hadn’t been rich, just reasonably well off—and not enough for our parents to leave behind sufficient money for us to survive for three years until I could work.

So, the relatives who ended up taking care of us didn’t hesitate to mention that they weren’t profiting from raising us; that they were wasting money on children who weren’t their own; that they didn’t have the time and energy to look after us, so will you two please make yourselves useful? Please? And the next time, we won’t say please.

The valuables among our parents’ belongings were sold off. Jewelry, antique furniture, the likes. The other things—the objects that were truly valuable to us, but had no monetary worth to anyone else in the world—were stowed away. For example, cups and plates. You might think that our relatives would have liked to get free cups and plates, but it wasn’t so; it was bad luck to eat from the dishes that used to belong to people who ended up dying such unlucky deaths.

So, along with the family photographs and souvenirs from tourist destinations, the cups and plates were sent to damp warehouses of relatives who were more distant to us than the distant relatives who were forced to take care of us. Then, from there, those things were sent off to yet more distant, very distant relatives and their warehouses.

We especially missed the photographs. Right after our parents’ passing, before those things were taken away from us, we’d often gazed into our family photographs, willing Mother and Father to take us away from this living nightmare. Sometimes, that seemed to “work.” On such nights, we felt like they were gazing back at us, past the layers of manipulated chemicals. They were there. And we dreamed of our parents. There’d even been some cases where Sena and I dreamed of exactly the same things. The same weekend getaway spot where we’d been to, years before the accident, only much cozier, warmer, filled with love, so much love…

Now the photographs are lost. Never officially thrown away, but practically so. To this day, in my sleeping nightmares, I see my parents haunting this world, unable to leave it behind. They’re afraid for their daughters. Worried… Concerned… Ever, forever…

As soon as I turned eighteen, we left the house of the most recent relative who’d deigned to provide a tiny side room for us. We had to stay in the city, where jobs were plentiful. We didn’t mind. In the city, people didn’t care that we were orphans—two sisters, too, without a proper “man of the household.” Their polite indifference didn’t stem from being naturally less nosy and less unhelpful compared to any other people from any other part of the world. It was simply because many Seoulites lacked one crucial resource: time.

We liked the busy activity, that preoccupation of the Seoulites with themselves. The city folks minded their own business. It was an ideal place for two sisters who were sick of the fake sympathy of distant relatives. And there, the only place we could afford was a small rooftop place attached to a four-story apartment.

When I say “rooftop place,” don’t imagine a fancy, luxurious home that’s designed to be inhabited by the rich and famous who like a stellar view. Think more like, a container box placed on top of a flat roof. The only element that differentiated our “apartment” from an actual container box was that we had plumbing, albeit mediocre. Through the pipes, cockroaches climbed up in winter because the top floor was the warmest. And may I point out that winters in Korea are freezing. “Warmest” still doesn’t mean “warm,” necessarily. Many a night, Sena and I ended up hugging each other, trembling, and letting the cockroaches crawl over us because neither of us had the energy to chase them away.

So, of course, I don’t drink. These days, I save everything that I earn. Sena does the same, mostly, unless she buys work clothes. (Those, we think, are investments. Dress for success.) We have to save most of what we earn, because we only recently started saving. All income used to go to rent and Sena’s education.

She went to a university, unlike me, qualifying her to teach math at a high school in a nice neighborhood. There’d been times when I’d thought that raising Sena to be a teacher was going to be impossible. These had been times when she’d allowed bullies and juvenile delinquents to influence her. This, to the point that she almost became one of them. But when one of her friends got shot dead in a gang fight, Sena awoke from foolishness. This had happened in a country where casual, private ownership of firearms was strictly prohibited. Not even the police were allowed to use guns in most situations. So, death by gunshot was serious business. There was an extensive investigation as to how the gun had gotten in the hands of the murderer. People went to prison. Sena was scared.

May that boy rest in peace. At least, it wasn’t too late for Sena to change her path. She stopped hanging out with the kids who’d been “given up on” by all adults around them. She came back to me. She studied. Became a teacher. And I am very proud of my sister, even though she still keeps in touch with her old friends. I say, she’s simply a warm person. And we stick together. In a world where all those who should’ve been responsible for us—the relatives, the teachers, those adults—have let us down, we only have each other.

By the way, don’t get me wrong. I am thankful to those relatives who prevented us from dying on the streets. Having been on my own since I turned eighteen, I can imagine what it must be like to passive-aggressively want to avoid spending money on some random kids who ended up on your doorstep because your brother or sister wasn’t careful enough with the steering wheel. (That’s what I imagine those people thought to themselves.)

But also don’t get me wrong the other way around: my being thankful doesn’t mean that I forgive those relatives. I mean, come on. Me now being thirty, I can imagine a million ways in which a grown-up might have treated a fifteen-year-old and a ten-year-old differently. It didn’t have to involve lots of money or fancy clothes, just…

Something other than obvious contempt would have been nice.

But, enough about the way, way past.

The point: things are fine.

Were fine.

We had each other. And although no one saw me, and I spent most of my work night under the pale lights of an office filled with blueish screens, I was proud of my job. From the sheltered safety of my desk, I made a difference. I was one of the eyes—doing what people call surveillance, and what I call protection. I was one of the invisible guardians of the Seoulites.

So, then, imagine my utter horror when Sena, in tears, told me that an eye that shouldn’t have watched her had watched her at a moment when it most definitely shouldn’t have.

The blackmailer said that he had her sex tape. He wanted 100,000. Not in Korean won. He wanted dollars. And not any dollars, but United States dollars. In nine days, by next Sunday. Location to be determined.

Do not contact the police, he’d told Sena on the phone. Or I will upload the video.

© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.

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