“Honestly, when you said you were buying a house I thought it might be a bit nicer” Kim Soo-Mi said looking at the peeling paint and the warped, drooping ceiling. “This place looks like something from the Park Chung-Hee era!”
Lee Ma-Ri rolled her eyes, her friend was majoring in political science and minoring in Modern Korean History at the University.
The place was a bit shabby but Ma-Ri was a proud new owner and she thought it had some potential, besides there were two rooms she could let out to other students. It would pay for itself if she did it that way.
“These doors aren't easy to move either” Soo-Mi said while trying to slide the bathroom door. “Seriously is this place even wired for electricity?”
Yes, but there weren't many plugs. Ma-Ri didn't see a problem with that, she liked what she liked.
Soo Mi shook her head “The bathroom walls are all, ick, the drain in the floor might be clogged and I bet a hair dryer would short circuit the whole neighborhood. How did they miss this place when the rest of the neighborhood was rebuilt in the 80's anyway? You're going to spend your whole break fixing this place up and you won't have any money left for soju!”
Ma-Ri never spent much time going out and drinking anyway. She had already visited some of the second-hand markets and found some items she would need. Kim Soo-Mi was right that the wallpaper really had to go. It was worn and she just wanted painted walls.
“Unnie, do you think Yewon and Suwon would volunteer to do some work around here for me” she asked her friend, who was much closer to the boys. “Isn't it cool to have a place like this close to campus, they don't have to stay with their grandmother?”
Soo-Mi crossed her arms and looked around with furrowed brow. “Maybe, but this place needs a lot of work before even they'd want to move in”
After Soo-Mi left, the proud new owner started tearing wallpaper down and soon found more wallpaper underneath. She sighed and shook her head, maybe she could paint over it. Then she noticed that it was actually newspaper underneath the first layer. Soo-Mi, the history buff, would get a kick out of this! So Ma-Ri continued pulling down the ugly wallpaper, dirt and dried glue fell too, so messy.
After a while Ma-Ri began to notice something. All of the newspaper on the wall had come from the same issue of the same newspaper. Someone had bought up a lot of newspapers on a single day or something to paper their house. Probably was an old issue they got for free out of the recycling, Korea was a poor country back then.
Later Soo-Mi texted her to say that Ma-Ri would need to personally go to the twins grandmother and ask for the help. The grandmother was kind of formal and particular, and probably a little senile but there were other people who helped out besides the boys. Ma-Ri decided to do that in the morning, first she would make instant noodles and unroll her bed in the living room. Her first night in her own place and she was very happy.
“Halmonie!” Ma-Ri said entering the gate of the home the next day and seeing the older woman hanging up some clothes on a line. “Annyeong!”
She bowed to the woman before getting down to business “I was wondering if it would be all right if your grandsons could help me renovate an old house I've bought?”
The woman seemed impressed that a University student could buy a house. Soon she was putting tea cups on the living room table “That must have been a lot of money”.
“Yeah, but it's okay. I saved up everything for as long as I can remember, every time I got pocket money I put it into my account.” Ma-Ri explained.
“But you didn't get to spend time with your friends if they were out buying things” the old woman said she was very perceptive. Lee Ma-Ri had been a lonely child, but she hadn't minded because she was a loner at heart. Until recently since Kim Soo-Mi had dragged her out of her shell.
Soon the twins came home from the library and grandmother made rice cakes as she told the boys about the house. “It's up the hill a bit, has to be the oldest house in the area”
“What's the address? So we can come look at it” Suwon said
“Is it creepy?” Yewon asked
Ma-Ri “I slept in the living room last night and I was not assaulted by ghosts or a gumiho. It's at 143 Gyeon-baek...”
Crash! Their grandmother had dropped the tray she was carrying and she looked faint. The boys rushed to help her sit on the couch.
“Are you okay?” they asked, rubbing her hands.
“Get her a drink of water!” Yewon told Suwon (Yewon was the elder, by 6 minutes)
Ma-Ri could only stand there looking shocked. Soon their grandmother regained some composure and looked at the girl “That house.... it still stands...?” she seemed confused “I never knew. I never go that way”
“You know this house? You've been there?” Lee Ma-Ri asked, the woman looked at her with a hard stare for a moment before becoming evasive.
“A long time ago. I guess it doesn't really matter” she said, trying to stand up “Let me get you those rice cakes with some honey”
“I'll get them halmonie!” Suwon said and went into the kitchen. Yewon was getting a blanket from the hall closet.
The old woman looked at Ma-Ri “They never found out who killed her, you know”. Ma-Ri was too shocked to ask the obvious questions and the woman acted like nothing had happened when the boys were within earshot again.
When she returned to the old house she felt some chills just looking into the gate. Once inside she seriously looked at the newspaper that covered the walls. Why that paper, that day?
December 14, 1979. All of them. The main stories were about the coup on December 12th. The minor headlines said something about a body being discovered at Yeongdeungpo Station. Some of the walls in the other rooms still hadn't been uncovered and she started pulling down that ratty old wallpaper too.
December 15, 1979 in one of the bedrooms. The stories were about the coup and the international response but at the bottom of the page a small item about the body of a young woman being identified as Pak Han-An. Who was Pak Han-An? Had the twins grandmother known this woman? It was a far-fetched assumption but given the way she had acted. Maybe not.
Later that day she visited the twins grandmother again. When they had time and were alone she asked the question. “Did you know Pak Han-An?”
The woman blinked and looked at her cup of tea. “She and I were best friends. Han-An was always running off and doing stupid things. She fell in love with an army Major and they were having an affair before the end.”
“What was his name?” Ma-Ri asked
“She never really told me” the old woman answered “I had suspects. I know he was named Major Kim, but there are so many Kims” she waved it off “So that was no real help”
“You never heard from him again? He never came looking for his mistress?” Ma-Ri wondered
The old woman sagged in the chair. “I thought he would turn up one day, but he never did. Possibly he didn't care or maybe he was too shaken to return”
Well, that wasn't an answer to the mystery. “Who wallpapered that house with those newspapers showing stories about her death?”
The woman didn't flinch. “Nobody cared. She had no family and I was her only real friend. I put those newspapers up all over the walls because I wanted people to remember. It was like a memorial in a way and it helped me, emotionally”
On her way back to the old house she texted Kim Soo-Mi to meet her, saying that there was something interesting about the old place after all. The twins showed up before her friend did and they found the newspapers and the story behind them to be a bit creepy and sad.
Soo-Mi was awestruck by the whole thing before she even heard the end of the story.
“This is all cool” Soo-Mi said taking pictures of the newspaper-plastered walls “Did she say anything about the man she loved?”
“Just that he was an Army Major named Kim and he never came back after she died” Ma-Ri said, wondering why she needed all the pictures of the house.
“Major Kim?” Soo-Mi asked, deep in thought suddenly “My uncle died in the December Twelfth coup, he was named Major Kim Oh-Rang!”
The four of them stared at each other. The boys rubbed their arms “Goosebumps!”
Lee Ma-Ri thought about this a moment “She might have been so distraught that she fell in front of the train. Or jumped!”
“Do you still want to live here?” One of the boys asked.
Buying a copy of New Arrivals helps keep me writing!