James was lying on the back seat of the car with his feet outstretched. He looked at his mother through the rearview mirror to see if she was watching, and then he peeked through the zipper on his bag to check on his phone. The phone was at seven percent–James was pleased that his tactics had worked. He had set his screen brightness to the maximum and turned on his mobile flashlight when he had gotten into the car at school.
“Mom, my phone died already. It was like fifty percent when I got in the car!”
“Give me the phone.” James’ mom snatched it from his hands and inspected it. “How did the battery die so quickly?”
“I don’t know! Why can’t you just buy me a new phone?”
“I bought this for you a week ago and you’re telling me you already need a new one? We’ll deal with this later; for now, let’s just get going.”
“But Mom, I need my phone for school tomorrow and all the Apple shops close at seven.”
“I can always buy you a flip phone or give you your dad’s old one.”
“But Mom, I need…”
“Not now, James.”
Impatiently, James tossed his phone onto the seat beside him. The real reason he wanted a new phone was that it had gotten scratched in his bag, but now he might be stuck with his dad’s old phone.
Instead of turning the car back on, James’ mom pulled the key out of the ignition.
“Why’d we stop?”
“The streets are too narrow. We’ll get out here, travel by foot. The apartment is over there,” she said.
James looked around. Unlike downtown Seoul, the streets were dark and the sidewalks were empty. The usually smooth pavement in the road was severely cracked and gray.
“Mom, why aren’t we going home?” he asked.
“I already told you. Weren’t you listening? We’re going to look at a few homes and hopefully make a deposit on one.”
“We already have a home. Why are we buying a house in this filthy neighborhood?”
James already knew exactly why his mom was trying to buy a house. He was only hoping that she would realize how ridiculous the whole idea sounded. She had explained how Korea’s taxes were unreasonably high but that because of a loophole, families could save a little bit on their taxes by adding a second address and pretending to live separately.
With an irritated sigh, James got out of the car and dragged his feet through the streets. A sudden movement caught him by surprise. On the other side of the tall gate he was passing through, he saw a young boy staring right back at him. James took a few steps back. The boy was wearing sandals and two t-shirts in the middle of a cold winter afternoon.
“Hello,” said the boy quietly. He awkwardly scratched his left ear and continued staring.
James had never engaged in a conversation with someone so poor. He was unsure what to say, so he remained silent. After a few seconds, James turned away and ran to catch up with his mom.
Entering the building, the first thing he noticed was the lack of an elevator. Wasn’t this apartment supposed to be on the third floor? As he pulled himself up the stairs with a scowl on his face, James could smell a different odor on every floor. A strong smell of cats on one floor, then burnt plastics on the next.
The stairs opened directly onto the roof. All there was to see up here were a few empty flower pots and a greasy grill.
“Why are we on the roof? Where’s the third floor?”
“This is it. This is our home.”
“The roof? The roof is our home?”
“There it is over there. Isn’t it cute?”
James looked doubtfully at his mom’s face, checking to see if she was cracking a joke, but she seemed to be completely serious. Was she delusional? Then James noticed the small shack in the center of the roof. He walked over to it and cranked open the rusty door that had drooped and embedded itself into the floor. Inside, there was barely enough room for a mattress and a sink. Behind it was a separate, even tinier room with a toilet and a showerhead attached above.
“How do you expect anyone to live here?”
“Well, we won’t really be living here. We’re just here to see what we’re buying.”
Right as James was about to exit the shack, he accidentally kicked a can of cola. The can was nearly empty and only a few drops spilled out.
“Do people live here?” he asked.
“This has been a home to many people. The most recent people living here were a couple, and they were fine.”
James tried to imagine how people in his neighborhood could endure living in such a small and wretched home. He remembered the foul smells coming from the floors below and wondered what the conditions were like on those levels. The buildings to the right and left–an entire landscape of old, deteriorating apartments–were all homes to people without the chance to enjoy anything that he had.
After not even four minutes in their new home, James and his mom decided to stroll back to the car. After all, there wasn’t much to look at. When he reached the car, he paused and looked over his shoulder. He had hoped the boy from earlier would still be there, but he seemed to have gone back inside to avoid the cold weather. After taking off his goose-fur jacket, James gently hung it over the boy’s fence.
James’ mom was focused on her phone screen. “Hurry, Apple stores close at seven!” she said.
“Didn’t you say you needed a new phone?”
“No, my phone’s working again,” James said as he shivered and stepped back into the car.
By Ace Yeom, age 15, Seoul, South Korea. This was selected as one of the Noteworthy Entries in our 2021 Youth Honor Awards program.