The number 4 in Korea is linked to death. Sa is both 4 and “died.” Often the 14th floor is skipped because 14 (ship-sa) sounds similar to “Time to Die” (shi-sa).
As two boys arrived at the Woorim Town Apartments in Yeosu, South Korea at 11:00 pm after math academy, it was almost time to break into their weekly Friday reward: hamburgers. The greasy bags were warm under their parkas.
They waited for the elevator that was on floor 15. Hyeonjun and Seoksu lived on the 4th floor, room F03 and F0F respectively. Hyeonjun left a smear of forehead oil as he fell asleep against the elevator door. The door opened. Seoksu caught him. Then shoved him inside and pressed the F button.
They said their goodnights.
They awaited the results of suneung, the once a year College Scholastic Ability Test that solely determined if they had a shot at the top three schools: Seoul, Korea, and Yongsei University. SKY. A 1% acceptance rate.
If you sleep three hours a night, they say, you can get into SKY.
So dinner, homework, studying to the sound of the League tournament on Twitch till 4:00 am then one more goodnight.
“Jalja,” Seoksu sent.
The little tick meant the message was read and knowing if not this year, then next, he fell asleep on the desk.
11:00 pm with Hyeonjun and they saw their mailboxes with government official envelopes. Their results.
Another tenant was waiting for the elevator, a salaryman, his tie loose, the stink of soju. He’d gone to a great university.
The boys took the stairs.
Other than Hyeonjun mumbling, there was no talking. No zombie-walking. They were very awake and very conscious of the plutonium in their hands.
Then Hyeonjun said, “You ever hear of the Wishing Step? If you take the stairs to the top floor while chanting and a spirit hears your prayer, an extra step will appear and you step on it--”
“Ha! You’re the idiot for not giving it a chance. What’s the harm?” And off he went, holding his results as he counted.
Seoksu heard the door to F03 close half an hour later.
When he sent a message before bed at 4:00 am, there was no read-tick next to it before he fell asleep.
The next day, Hyeonjun wasn’t at academies. 11:00 pm, tired, Seoksu knocked on room F03. Mrs. Kim answered.
“Sorry to bother you so late,” he said.
The door closed and Seoksu heard a sly whisper in his mind: His wish came true.
Before bed that night, when he heard the morning garbage trucks beeping out the open stairwell windows, he went to the 1st floor and, in his pajamas, counted the cold steps all the way up.
He counted the steps between floor 13 and 15. 12 steps. 12 times 14.
He took the elevator down.
That sly whisper: Idiot can’t count.
“Idiot can’t count,” Seoksu muttered.
On Sunday, he finally saw Hyeonjun again, casually taking the stairs down, eating a Hanwoo burger from Lotteria--it wasn’t Friday. His face was usually swollen from late night ramyeon at the convenience store. Today, Hyeonjun looked slim. He was smiling.
They got to the lobby.
“So which one?” Seoksu asked. “Congratulations, but which one you going for? Yongsei? Seoul? Your choice of the litter, I guess. Congrats.”
“Don’t worry so much,” Hyeonjun said. He zipped up his parka, about to leave for the PC Room.
When suddenly, Seoksu asked, “How many steps?”
“You counted wrong.”
“Did you say the prayer?’
“I said the prayer! You counted wrong. I went up those steps three times praying and every night since and it’s a damn automatic response now. Every time, 168 steps. You counted wrong.”
“I didn’t! I went real slow and--”
“You counted wrong.”
There was no point fighting Seoksu. Stress was turning him into his father. Unhappy. Angry. Uncontrollable. He grabbed Hyeonjun by the hood of his jacket. “Let’s go. One more time.”
“I’m meeting Minji.”
“Math class dropout Minji?” Seoksu scoffed. “Aren’t you too good for us now?”
There wasn’t much Hyeonjun could do. It wasn’t worth fighting. It wasn’t worth trying when he’d fail. It wasn’t worth the worry. He stopped resisting and let himself be pulled up, Seoksu furiously praying as they counted, slowly, together. No one else ever took the stairs. Not with the elevator right there. They were alone, going up the stairwell, past the open windows.
“See? 168 steps!” Seoksu screamed, winded. “I don’t know how you got into SKY and I didn’t when you can’t even count!”
“I didn’t,” Hyeonjun said. “That night, when I got to the top, when I counted that extra step, I wished I wouldn’t have to worry anymore and I opened the envelope and my test score was so-so.”
“If all that work and stress and misery equaled so-so, I wasn’t going to worry anymore.”
“What?!” Seoksu shoved him.
With his back against the open window, Hyeonjun said, “I wasn’t ready to admit that I’d given up on my dream.”
That sly whisper: he lied.
Seoksu shoved him again.
And out the window Lee Hyeonjun fell. Down 1 floor, down 5, down 14.
Later, his mother was broken. She knew he’d acted strange lately. He’d been unmotivated after his results, but she never thought he’d… They ruled it a suicide.
Now, Seoksu ran down the steps, unaware he was saying the prayer on instinct, down 12, down 60, down 169 steps.
With the entrance in view, with the mangled corpse surrounded by onlookers, he took that final step, wishing no one would ever know what he’d done, and he disappeared down that extra step, and with one suicide, why not another even if they never found the body of Choi Seoksu.