At Ki-jeong’s mother’s house, the door to her sister’s room was always closed. It was closed when she vanished without a word a few years earlier, and when she came back. It was closed when she left home again, and when Ki-jeong held a simple funeral for her, alone. Ki-jeong had never once found the closed door strange. It seemed natural, as if it were a door to a utility room or a storage closet.
Ki-jeong didn’t even think to enter the room until after returning from Sunshine Goshiwon. The room was relatively pristine. Without anyone to occupy it, it felt chilly despite the summer heat, but it wasn’t the kind of chill you felt in an actual storage closet or a basement. It was more akin to a well-sanitized and organized hospital.
She poked around a little, but other than guessing from the layers of dust just how much time had passed, she didn’t think she’d learn much from it. It looked like its previous occupant had purposefully cleaned it out before leaving.
She didn’t skip over the locked drawer, though. She got a screwdriver from the toolbox and managed to pry it open after a few tries. She made so much noise doing so that her mother came running. Her mother stopped right before the threshold, as if something bad might happen if she crossed it, and clucked her tongue at Ki-jeong.
“That’s what all that racket was? What on earth are you looking for? And where is that girl, anyway? School’s out for the summer, but she doesn’t so much as call or show up? That’s disrespectful, even for her.”
Ki-jeong didn’t respond. She wanted to delay telling her mother about her sister’s death for as long as possible. Delaying it wouldn’t change the fact of her death, after all. She was pretty sure she would be hurt by her mother’s reaction. Her sister, already being dead, of course, wouldn’t be hurt no matter what Ki-jeong’s mother said or did.
There were no diaries or appointment books. The desk calendar was blank; she hadn’t marked so much as her own birthday on it. The locked drawer revealed two notebooks, neither of which had been used. Ki-jeong leafed through her sister’s books, but nothing was underlined.
She read the titles of the books out loud, hoping one of them might offer a hint. Aesthetic Theory. Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. The God of Small Things. Dog of the Underworld. First Love. The Silent Cry. The only thing those titles revealed was that her sister was interested in a lot of different things but didn’t delve deeply into any of them. She had left not a single clue behind that revealed anything of herself.
Ki-jeong had always considered her sister careless, sloppy, and incapable of expressing her own opinion, and thought she’d masked the low self-esteem that came from growing up in someone else’s house with a smile that projected innocence and confidence. It was possible, though, that her sister had chosen to conceal herself in order to live in harmony with the new family that she’d suddenly found herself a part of. In fact, maybe she was far more in control than Ki-jeong had thought, to the point where she’d foreseen what would happen and had meticulously erased all traces of herself well in advance.
On one of her rounds, Ki-jeong visited her sister’s old high school. Her homeroom teacher still remembered her. On the spur of the moment, Ki-jeong lied and said her sister was missing. She figured she might get further that way. Her sister’s teacher was shocked to hear it and helped her to find contact information for several of her sister’s old friends.
Of the people Ki-jeong contacted, only one was willing to meet her. Another had simply changed her number and was unreachable, and a third reacted coldly at the mention of her sister’s name and claimed she hadn’t known her all that well. From the way they spoke to Ki-jeong, she could tell they didn’t hold her sister in high regard and weren’t exactly itching for an update. They all seemed put off by being contacted out of the blue. Ki-jeong understood. There could be nothing inviting about getting a phone call from a family member of a friend you hadn’t spoken to in ages.
The one girl who agreed to meet Ki-jeong told her she had just graduated from college and was preparing for the civil service exam. Most people her age were doing something like that. It was the age at which you were in a constant state of preparing for something, or failing at what you’d prepared to do only to try again. The age at which you tried endlessly to fulfill something but had no fulfillment to call your own.
The girl, who’d been in the same class as her sister, told her they were only passing acquaintances and that they had not talked after graduation. Ki-jeong prodded a bit more, but the girl seemed unaware of her sister’s family life or the issues surrounding it. She couldn’t recall anything specific, like her sister’s habits or which celebrities she’d liked. No matter what Ki-jeong asked, the girl said, “You know, she was just quiet and smiled a lot . . .” Toward the end, she apologized for wasting Ki-jeong’s time when she clearly did not know her sister well at all.
When Ki-jeong asked if the girl could at least steer her toward someone who might know something, the girl hesitated and said, “Actually, there were rumors.”
“People complaining about how she tricked them. They said she would call and offer to hook them up with a part-time job, but when they met her in person, it turned out to be a multi-level marketing scam.”
“Yeah, everyone was talking about it. Even I heard about it, and I barely knew her. It was all over the news at the time, too. All this stuff about illegal pyramid schemes . . . What I heard was that they were treating college kids like slaves, feeding everyone scraps and making guys and girls who didn’t even know each other all sleep in the same room. Those stories had everyone so scared that whenever you got a call from someone you hadn’t heard from in a while, you automatically assumed they were trying to lure you into one. Then, one day, I really did get a call from her. I mean, we’d never once spoken on the phone before. . . . We really weren’t that close. I could barely put a face to her name. It was the same for everyone else I knew, too. They said she was going through the yearbook and cold-calling everyone. I’d heard so many stories at that point that the moment she said her name I just hung up. I’m sorry about that.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I was afraid that once she started talking, I would fall for whatever she said. They say those people really have a way with words. You can’t listen to them for even a second or they’ll have you. She kept trying to call for a while after that, but I never answered. And then finally the calls stopped.”
Was that it? Her sister’s tightly guarded secret? The moment Ki-jeong heard the words multi-level marketing scam, she could see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The debt the detective had mentioned made more sense now, too. Her sister had bet everything she had, hoping it would pay off, only to fail, and when she couldn’t get out from under her debts, she’d offered up her life instead.
From there, Ki-jeong was able to contact others who’d known her sister and finally meet some who’d been with her in the pyramid scheme’s so-called dorm. This time she told them right away that her sister was dead. It was the easiest way to explain why she was calling. Each time, they all expressed the same shock and gave her the same formulaic words of consolation.
Their stories were identical. How ardently she had tried to fool them, how big of a front she’d put up to keep them from leaving, how she kept rattling off the same words to try to seduce them over to her wild ideas. Ki-jeong wasn’t sure how much to believe. But whether she believed them or not, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. The fact that it was so different from the sister she’d known was no excuse. It was only natural that the sister she knew would be different from the person her sister’s friends had known.
When she failed to react with sympathy, one of her sister’s friends said, sounding aggrieved, “I was trapped there for three months because of your sister. I missed an entire semester and lost all of my tuition money. My mom was so mad at me.”
“The stuff my sister told you was that convincing?”
“At the time, it was.”
“Then who was the one who tricked my sister into joining?”
“You mean her upline?”
“The one who recruited her. Wow, I can’t believe I still remember those terms. They really drilled it into us. Those are the terms they used. Upline for recruiters, downline for recruits.”
“So when you recruit a friend, they become your downline?”
“Yes, I was her downline.”
“Who was her upline?”
Ki-jeong’s voice trembled slightly. Maybe she’d finally found a link between Se-oh Yun and her sister.
“Some guy named Bu-wi.”
“He graduated high school before us. He was her boyfriend.”
Everything about her sister was new to Ki-jeong. Including the fact that she’d had a boyfriend.
“What about Se-oh Yun? Was there someone by that name there?”
“You don’t know her?”
“Did she die with her?”
The girl looked apologetic as soon as the words were out. But there was nothing to be sorry for. It was normal for someone her age to be a little rude and insensitive when it came to death.
After returning home, Ki-jeong looked up a book on network marketing. According to the book, one could drastically reduce the number of years spent toiling simply by making a slight alteration to how one toiled. It said to utilize personal networks as a shortcut. Consumers could become salespeople, without the retail or wholesale middleman, and expand their markets through a chain of personal connections. As their downline increased exponentially, they could earn the equivalent of an ordinary officer worker’s thirty-nine-year salary in just one year.
The book didn’t explain where that thirty-nine-year figure had come from. Instead it kept repeating how the profit model worked. How you could increase your downline from one to two recruits, and then ten, and so on, and how those on the downline would command their own downline, earning you a massive, unbelievable profit ratio.
The core idea was that by investing a year’s work, you could rest easy for the next thirty-nine. That is, by enduring hardship for just one year, you were guaranteed to succeed, and so you had to view a few months of suffering as a kind of investment capital. It was only by clinging tenaciously to survival that you would accomplish whatever you set out to do. Giving up meant certain failure, but holding out for a year raised your chances for success.
Did people really fall for something so obvious? That not everyone would achieve success, but everyone would for sure work like a dog, and that, in the end, only a very few would be spared from total failure? Did they really buy the exaggerated description of ideal circumstances and the repeated tripe about how if you just worked hard enough, you could strike it rich? Ki-jeong was dubious, and yet considering how many people fell for it, there was clearly a convincing angle to it.
Ki-jeong kept going. She went back to the school to look for Bu-wi. It was relatively easy for her to do, since she’d been a teacher.
But while the process was easy, finding Bu-wi turned out to be another story. His phone number was out of service, someone else was living at his address, and the college that he’d claimed he was attending informed her that no one by that name had ever enrolled or graduated from there.
Ki-jeong repeated the name Bu-wi out loud. She wrote her sister’s name on a piece of paper, wrote Bu-wi next to it, and drew a circle around each name. She drew a line between the circles to connect them. She made an upline and a downline. Then she wrote the name Se-oh and tried connecting all three circles as many ways as she could. First, her sister, then Se-oh, then Bu-wi. She could change the order as much as she wanted. No matter how she drew the line—from Se-oh to her sister to Bu-wi, or her sister to Bu-wi to Se-oh—they were always connected. Everything was possible in her imagination, because she really didn’t know any of them. She stared hard at the lines that stretched off in all directions while simultaneously remaining in place. As if the owners of those lines were right there. As if by staring at their names, she was seeing their faces.
Back when their lives had connected, they’d probably had no idea that, in just a few years’ time, one of them would meet a lonely death. And that no one would mourn her.