“Do not open the door for anyone, even if they say it’s just a package.”
“There’s sikhye in the fridge,” his mother said, pointing at the worn down refrigerator that was now more orange around the edges than it was white. While his mother got ready for her regular night shift, San-hee climbed on top of the mattress and turned his back to her. He pressed his ear to the floor. The fridge continued its ancient humming, and somewhere below him, he heard someone having a shower. His eyelids trembled as he waited for the unmistakable sound of keys jangling with his eyes closed, closely followed by the creak of an old wooden door closing, leaving him alone in the room the two called home.
The moment he was sure she was gone, San-hee kicked the covers away from him and tiptoed across the room to reach the one chest in the corner. He placed one foot on a crescent-shaped handle and the other on the chest, and heaved himself on top, right next to where the window was. He tugged at it, and it took San-hee more than a few attempts to drag it open. A gust of wind blew in his face: he closed his eyes, then opened them again to be greeted by an empty night sky. He frowned. It was always the same, like someone decided to draw a moon on canvas and forgot to paint the rest. He knew what was missing because he learned about stars in school. They were so far away, they could be seen, but not touched.
“But I never see them,” one girl had said, her hand high in the air.
“I know, sweetie.” The teacher sighed. “Here in Seoul, the stars hide behind city lights. They still are where they are, though. You just have to look for them.”
His mother drove a taxi for a living, but she insisted that she didn’t have money for anything other than public transportation. He didn’t understand. I want to be on an airplane, he used to say. I want to see the stars. But instead of answering, she would start crying. So he stopped mentioning airplanes. But he saw them every once in a while, roaring above his head and leaving behind a white trail of clouds. He would lift his finger and trace the airplane until it disappeared over a small mountain or an apartment building far away.
Every night, he sat on top of the chest for hours and hours, waiting for the stars. And every night, he climbed back down to make that wish come true in his way. He stood on his toes and reached for the lamp on the window sill. Those lamps are expensive, his mother had said in the store. The only reason it was there was because he refused to leave until his mother bought one for him.
He turned it on and placed it on the floor. Almost immediately, yellow stars appeared everywhere in the room, shifting across the ceiling and walls when he pushed it forward by accident. As he reached for them, a shadow of his hand copied him. He grabbed a star, then another, all of which disappeared and reappeared as he moved his hand. He giggled, the sound echoing around the room. He was alone, but it didn’t matter when hundreds of stars were with him. He pulled the covers over him and drifted off to sleep with the lamp still on.
When San-hee woke up, it was still the middle of the night. The window was still open, and so was the one drawer that he forgot to close. But the stars were not there, and the ceiling and walls were replaced by plain white paint. He stood up. The lamp was gone. He stood up, and found himself face to face with his mother, hair ruffled and her clothes just the same as they were when she left the room. She pulled out a lamp from her pocket. His lamp. San-hee pointed at it.
“I want that.”
Without much of an explanation or a single word, his mother gestured at him to follow her to the door and down the stairs to where her orange taxi was parked. He had no choice but to follow her. He ran up to her and tugged on her sleeves.
“But my lamp,” he said.
It didn’t occur to San-hee that the taxi wasn’t hers, or that she shouldn’t even be home at this hour. He just wanted that lamp. And so when his mother walked to the front of the car and got in the front, he didn’t know what else to do but to open the door and get in the back seat. He sniffed. He had never been inside his mother’s taxi before. It smelled like people, more people, cigarettes, and chemicals.
“Give me the lamp,” he said. “Please?”
The street was eerily quiet, and so was the inside of the car before it came to life. He stared in front of him. A little person ran in the corner of the screen, alongside a number that started from 3,800 and went up as they continued on a journey that only one knew the destination for. He looked out the window. He saw two or three cars ahead of him before he started to doze off, his head bobbing up and down.
When his mother reached the highway, she slammed on the accelerator, and within minutes, San-hee gave up on the lamp. His eyes closed, and he started to droop to the side, snoring as he did. Only then did his mother look behind her. She smiled. Her hands tightened around the steering wheel as she sped down the road.
San-hee woke up to the sound of the taxi screeching to a full stop.
“Where are we?” he croaked, tired because he woke up too early, sad because he no longer had the lamp, and confused because he had no idea what was going on.
He opened the door. To his right was a small town, detached houses next to each other with the kind of blue roofs that San-hee never saw around his own. In front of him was vast nothingness, crickets filling in the gap as he approached them and waded into the grass.
Her mother got out of the car. He turned towards her. She pointed at the sky, and San-hee too looked up. He gasped. There were stars. But they were brighter than he ever saw them and higher than he could ever reach them. There were stars everywhere, dotted across the sky and beyond.
He lay down, the grass as soft as a carpet. His mother did the same.
“Are those real stars?” he asked his mother, his finger over one of them.
She rolled over and hugged him tightly. Tears formed in her eyes as she too stared at the sky. “Yes, San-hee, they are real. They are very real.”