The UFO thing is supposed to just be a joke.
Her best friend Gangjoo is an American TV junkie, and she’s been binge watching The X-Files lately, and everything is aliens with her 24/7 for the past two months. It’s hard to tell with Gangjoo whether she actually believes in them or is just entering into the spirit of the show. Either way, the obsession grows to the point where Jiwon gets inspired, and one day when she’s supposed to be working on her article about the soccer team for the school newspaper, Jiwon pulls up Photoshop instead. Two hours later, she downloads the video onto her phone, texts Gangjoo to meet her after school, and then it’s just a matter of waiting for the right moment.
When she runs, panting and red-faced, up to the tree in the courtyard where she always meets Gangjoo before school three days later, Gangjoo’s eyes go wide. Jiwon’s hands actually are shaking as she holds out her phone, but none of the other students who are staring as she stumbles over her words and pounds her fist against her chest know that’s from the laughter Jiwon’s holding inside her. Gangjoo’s eyebrows rise further and further up her forehead as she watches the thirty-second video, and by the time it ends, she’s jumping up and down and shrieking, hitting Jiwon with a flailing hand. Gangjoo’s always wanted to be an actress, and this is an award-winning performance.
“A UFO? A UFO just like the one Mulder saw outside Area 51? Where did you see this, Jiwon? When?”
“Just now! Just now on my way to school! Over the park!”
Some of the other students who are usually milling around have eased closer to find out the source of Gangjoo’s excitement.
“And you got actual video? Jiwon, you’re going to be a millionaire! We have to get this to a news source!”
Seconds later, there’s a knot of students peering down at Jiwon’s phone and exclaiming over the video. Jiwon meets Gangjoo’s eyes over the tops of their bent heads, and Gangjoo’s eyes spark with mirth.
Later, alone in the bathroom, Gangjoo leans against Jiwon and laughs so hard that she almost falls over.
In retrospect, maybe Gangjoo’s shrieks of laughter were less about the inherent hilarity of the joke and more about relief that Jiwon is joking again.
Hyojin dies three weeks before her ninth birthday. Jiwon’s at school when it happens, but on her way home that night she hears a chilling sound as she turns the corner to her block. It takes her a moment to process what it is, and then she’s running, running, running so fast that the winter air seems to strip her throat raw, and by the time she reaches the apartment building, the stitch in her side seems to have ripped open.
Hyojin’s mom is prostrate on the ground in front of the building, wailing in a way that makes the hair on Jiwon’s arms stand on end even under the warmth of her thick coat. Jiwon’s own mother is holding Hyojin’s mom, murmuring to her in a soothing voice, one minute telling her that Hyojin isn’t in any pain anymore, the next begging her to come inside where it’s warm.
Jiwon stands there and watches, sobs caught in her raw throat, pain throbbing in her side but every other part of her numb. She doesn’t even feel the biting cold, though later when she gets inside her frozen toes will smart in the heat.
Eventually, Eomma pulls Hyojin’s mom upright and starts to lug her towards the door to the building. But then Hyojin’s mom sees Jiwon standing there and she lurches out of Eomma’s arms and swipes up a pile of dirty snow in her red hand. The half-melted slush hits Jiwon square in the face, a cold smack she barely feels.
“You lied to her, you little harpy! You lied and lied and lied again! Even right before, she said, ‘We’ll have a big cake for my birthday, won’t we? Jiwon Eonnie says I’ll be well by then!’” The wail Hyojin’s mom lets out then seems like it could crack her open, but it doesn’t even touch Jiwon. She doesn’t feel anything at all, even as the snow drips icy down the neck of her coat.
Other little girls put their mom’s slips on their heads for veils and pretend to be brides, or make tinfoil crowns and pretend to be princesses. Jiwon pulls on Appa’s blazer and pulls her unruly hair back into a slick bun. With the sleeves hanging down over her hands, she pushes the coffee table away from the sofa with her knees, then sits down on the other side and looks down solemnly at the sheaf of paper she’s holding.
“In local news today, a dragon was sighted flying over the elementary school. Sources say it’s looking for a little girl to run away with.”
Appa laughs and laughs, and her seriousness falls away as he ruffles her hair and calls her his little reporter.
Jiwon throws the door open and throws her arms up in the air in a triumphant pose. “Hyojinnie!”
“Eonnie, Eonnie! Tell me what you did today!”
It’s what Hyojin begs every time Jiwon comes to see her. She isn’t strong enough to bounce with excitement like any other little girl, but her eyes are so bright as Jiwon clomps over, dropping her backpack and sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Do you know who I saw on the way to school?” Jiwon asks, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
Jiwon can’t help the grin that bursts across her face at Hyojin’s delighted gasp. “Yes! He was waiting at the bus stop for the number 17 bus to take him to the train station so he could go back home to Porong Porong Forest! And he gave me a hug and asked me to give it to you!”
Jiwon holds Hyojin as tight as she dares. Hyojin’s tiny clinging arms are so weak around her, but she’s so warm. Almost too warm. Like always.
“Oh!” Jiwon says, when she releases the little girl. “Did I tell you that Gangjoo got a pet unicorn for her birthday?”
They aren’t lies, really. She’s not expecting Hyojin to believe them. But Hyojin wants so badly to know about the world outside her tiny room, outside the ambulances, outside the hospital. She never gets to see it, and Jiwon doesn’t want her to know how dark and ugly it can be. She wants Hyojin to believe in a world as beautiful and exciting as imagination can create.
The stories Jiwon tells her are the highlight of Hyojin’s day. She has nothing else besides television and the books her mom reads to her when she can spare a moment. Hyojin begs and begs for Jiwon to retell her favorites, and Jiwon adds new details each time. With each word, she eagerly watches Hyojin’s face. Her smiles are the highlight of Jiwon’s day.
It’s Naeun in Class 3 who calls the local news station. Her aunt is a reporter there, one Jiwon’s been watching her whole life. Jiwon’s so in awe of her when she appears in front of her, Lee Yeri, large as life with a smile so white it’s almost blinding, hair sleek and shiny like a movie star’s, a cameraman behind, that Jiwon can’t even consider telling her that it was just a joke.
Besides, she tells herself later. Wasn’t it the station’s responsibility to send the video to an expert before airing the footage? If they don’t even follow basic journalistic fact-checking procedures, they deserve to be shamed.
(She deserves to be shamed.)
The thing is, Hyojin keeps on believing her. Oh, maybe she knows that Gangjoo doesn’t really have a unicorn and Jiwon didn’t really go to the Blue House for tea yesterday with all the members of A*Pink. She’s a smart little girl, after all, smarter even than Jiwon was at her age. But somehow, she treats every word Jiwon says about her like it’s a natural law.
Jiwon doesn’t understand. You would think after the first time Jiwon says, “Oh, you’ll be well by summer, definitely! And then we can go to the beach and I’ll teach you how to swim!” and then summer comes and Hyojin still can’t get out of bed, she’d realize that Jiwon is wrong. But still, no matter how crushed she is by the recent disappointment, she listens when Jiwon says, “You’ll definitely be able to go to the skating rink when it opens—you’ll be better by then!”
And Hyojin believes her.
(And maybe, because Hyojin believes it, Jiwon lets herself believe it too. Every single time.)
The day after the retraction airs, the day after the rumors that it was all a hoax are substantiated and whole world knows that Jiwon lied to a reporter, Gangjoo doesn’t meet Jiwon in the courtyard.
Jiwon feels a little chill, but she ignores it, because Gangjoo could have needed to talk to the teacher before class or she might be sick and staying home today. Jiwon holds her chin up high and ignores the sideways glances and the little tug in her stomach each time she hears the sound of her own name paired with the word ‘liar.’ She gets herself down the hall without breaking down by focusing on Gangjoo. Gangjoo will probably be in class, and with Gangjoo beside her, Jiwon doesn’t need anyone else.
When the bell rings and she heads to her classroom, Gangjoo is already there in her seat beside Jiwon’s empty one. Relief surges through Jiwon and she hurries over to her friend.
Gangjoo’s face is a blur of cold as she turns away, and she doesn’t pitch her voice low when she says, “Dongmin, switch seats with me. I don’t want to sit next to Liar Song anymore.”
And just like that Jiwon loses her second friend in two years. It doesn’t hurt quite as much as losing Hyojin, because at least Gangjoo isn’t dead.
(But maybe it hurts even more, because this time it’s all her own fault.)
Jiwon doesn’t go to Hyojin’s funeral. Eomma says that Hyojin’s mom doesn’t want to see her. With the aching, throbbing grief Jiwon’s feeling now that her numbness has shattered, she shouldn’t be able to feel the sting of that rejection, but she feels it anyway. Hyojin’s mom had always been glad to see her before when she came to visit. She was Hyojin’s only friend. The rest of their building was full of pensioners and Jiwon and Hyojin were the only children in the building. Despite the four years of difference in their ages, Hyojin had been so precious to Jiwon, and Hyojin’s mom had been thrilled that someone was visiting her daughter, brightening her long painful days.
“She’s lashing out. She’s in pain, Jiwon,” Appa says, his kind face solemn for once instead of laughing. “Pain like we cannot imagine.”
“I’m in pain, too,” Jiwon insists, and it’s true: she’s never felt pain like this before.
“But not like hers, Jiwonnie. Nothing like hers.”
Jiwon tries to imagine pain deeper than what she’s feeling, but Appa’s right: for all her imagination, she can’t do it. But she trusts Appa absolutely, so if he says Hyojin’s mom hurts worse, she must.
And she feels a little bit of the anger Hyojin’s mom’s is feeling a week later when she overhears Minyoung talking to Gangjoo while they’re changing before P.E. “What’s wrong with Song? She barely talks anymore and before you couldn’t shut her up.”
“A little girl who lives in her building died,” Gangjoo answers, voice quiet. Gangjoo doesn’t understand Jiwon’s grief, but she’s been kind through the whole thing. That makes it hurt all the more two years later when the UFO thing happens.
“Is that all?” Minyoung says, dismissive, and Jiwon wants to hit Minyoung in the face with more than a handful of slushy snow. Maybe a handful of slushy snow with a great big rock in it. Before Hyojin died, she might have done just that. But now she feels weighted down, like she’s constantly fighting her way through a thick syrup, and she doesn’t have the energy for violence.
She turns away.
Jiwon makes her own newspapers in elementary school. Bright crayon and reports on all of her classmates. Her friends think they’re funny, but Kim Seongsangnim isn’t laughing as she scans the paper she plucked off of Jiwon’s desk earlier.
“This is what you’re working on instead of your math lesson?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jiwon mumbles. She’s been in trouble enough for talking when she’s supposed to be quiet that she knows what punishment she’s likely to get.
Kim Seongsangnim is quiet for a long time. Then she says, “The drawings are good and so is the writing. But Jiwon, if you want to be a reporter, you have to write things that are true.”
Jiwon wrinkles her nose—true things are boring, and her friends wouldn’t laugh nearly as much if she just said things that were true.
But it’s Kim Seongsangnim’s recommendation that gets her onto the newspaper staff in middle school. With such a big responsibility and Kim Seongsangnim’s good opinion riding on her behavior, she tries.
“Instead of lying to your friends, why don’t you just write stories?” Sungmin says, rolling his eyes at Jiwon’s laments over how she doesn’t know how to tell her friends that she lied to them about the ghost. “Write a ghost story about a ghost in a shoe cupboard who changes colors and is a murder victim. People love ghost stories.”
But that would be too easy for Jiwon.
In the weeks after Hyojin dies, Jiwon crawls out of bed at two in the morning, writes down stories for Hyojin on light purple paper with a dark purple pen (purple was Hyojin’s favorite color). They grow wilder and wilder each night, stories of idols and dragons going on adventures to Porong Porong Forest, and after she’s written them, Jiwon burns them all in the bathroom sink.
Jiwon knew that Kang Eonnie was lying about something. She wasn’t really sure of what it was, though when the truth comes out, she’s less surprised than Yeeun and Eunjae. The thing about the auras and the colors, that’s not true, of course, but if she just said, “Kang Eonnie is lying about something. Something big,” nobody would have listened to her. She hadn’t expected them to believe her about seeing ghosts, but since they do, stretching it to auras isn’t that much of a difference.
Jiwon doesn’t really blame Kang Eonnie for lying. Yeeun is furious, though maybe with her it’s not just about the lying. Eunjae is just in shock that anyone actually does what Kang Eonnie does. Yoon Sunbae doesn’t react at all. Maybe she knew already, though there’s no way of knowing with Yoon Sunbae. She doesn’t give anything away. She could be hiding some enormous secret and even Jiwon, who’s intuitive about these things, would never know.
But anyway, Kang Eonnie’s lie makes sense. Because the truth is, if Kang Eonnie had said, “I’m a sugar baby,” of course they wouldn’t have let her live with them. The landlady would have said no, the other girls (especially Yeeun) would have said no. By saying she was a university student, Kang Eonnie bought herself some time. Time for the others to get to know her, to see past the word prostitute that would have been all they’d be able to see if she’d told them from the beginning. Everyone’s angry about the lie, of course, but in the end they forgive her because they know her and they know she’s not just what that one word implies. She moves back in, and everything goes back to the way it was before. (Kind of.)
Eomma laughs and says that it’s hormones that pulled Jiwon out of her grief. “If she hadn’t started falling in love with every boy she saw, I don’t think she ever would have smiled again after Hyojin died,” Jiwon overhears Eomma telling a downstairs ajumma.
Jiwon doesn’t want to think about it like that. When she’s thinking about a crush—about how he smells, the way his wrists look when he rolls up his sleeves, the way the line from him shoulders to his hips makes an upside down triangle—she doesn’t have to think about Hyojin or lies or anything at all.
Jiwon doesn’t watch the news the night she knows they’re going to air the retraction. She knows they won’t identify her by name—they had only called her a Changshin Girls’ School student when they showed the footage in the first place. But everyone she knows already knows it’s her, and she can’t bear to watch it knowing that everyone else is watching it too. It’s the first time she’s missed the news since she was six.
It isn’t till a month after Hyojin dies that Jiwon realizes she never even knew what disease it was that preyed on her all those years and then killed her. She’d never asked, because she didn’t really want to know. If she’d known it had a name, then that meant that it was out there eating other little girls alive, and Jiwon couldn’t bear the thought of one more Hyojin.
She knows that there are other little girls out there suffering the way Hyojin did, maybe dying. But as long as she doesn’t know the name, she doesn’t have to believe it.
(Maybe Jiwon is best at lying to herself.)
“Eonnie, you should write books!” Hyojin says more than once. “Your stories are better than book stories!”
But Jiwon doesn’t want to be a novelist. She wants to be a reporter. That’s always been the dream, and it isn’t going to change now.
She gets called “Liar Song” so often during her last two years of high school that it almost stops hurting.
It’s not that Jiwon doesn’t know the difference between lies and the truth. It’s just that sometimes something made-up can make the point so much better than the truth. Like when she tells Eunjae about Yeeun’s fictional star of a twin sister. It isn’t true, but it gets Eunjae to realize that everybody’s got a context and that context shapes them. Or when she told Sungmin that she had an anonymous source telling her that the head of the classics department was sleeping with a grad student. That hadn’t been true, either, but it got Sungmin excited about looking into the classics department when he hadn’t even cared before. And because they investigated, they had uncovered a case of grade bribery, so wasn’t it worth it in the end?
Jiwon doesn’t lie for selfish reasons. She could lie to guys about who she really is and probably actually get laid, but she doesn’t do that. She doesn’t cheat people or take advantage of them. But sometimes when she’s trying to get someone to actually listen to her, a little made up story is so much easier. The thing is: lies sometimes work.
(Lies had made Hyojin smile.)
“I wish I could see ghosts,” she whispers to the ceiling of her room in Belle Epoque.
She doesn’t know if the words are true.
What would Hyojin think if she could see her now?
Jiwon never once has to print a retraction, not in her middle school paper or her high school one or now at college. Sometimes she has to print corrections, but everybody has to print those—sometimes you don’t find out all the information till after the story’s gone to print.
Words you speak can be walked back or clarified, but ink is forever. Jiwon thinks of UFOs and Lee Yeri and Kim Seongsangnim and she never, ever lies in print.
(Though sometimes it would be so easy.)
She finally confesses, probably at the worst possible time, but the other girls forgive her. She knows they’re hurt, upset, possibly confused. But they don’t call her a liar and they don’t turn away from her in disgust. Yoon Sunbae actually thanks her for lying to her. Things are awkward with Eunjae for a bit because, after all, Eunjae never would have confessed about her father if Jiwon hadn’t lied about the ghost. But the rest of them don’t mention it again, except for Yeeun who makes a few snide remarks now and then about not being sure whether to believe Jiwon. But that’s just Madame Jung.
For a time, Jiwon watches her housemates’ faces in every interaction, searching for a sign that they no longer trust her. At first she sees it in every action, every expression. But sooner or later it’s like it never happened and she realizes that the others really have put it behind them.
She wishes she could do the same. Jiwon can’t stop thinking about it, about the consequences of that one stupid, drunk lie. About how it made the other girls confront their pasts and think about their futures. About how all five of them would be different people right now if she hadn’t told that lie.
And that makes her think of Hyojin. She hasn’t allowed herself to think about her friend in years. But her stories had made Hyojin so happy. And probably the little girl had known all along that they weren’t true. Hyojin was only eight, and sheltered, but she was smart. She had enjoyed the stories for what they were. And as for Jiwon’s assurances that she would get better, those weren’t lies.
That was hope.
The landlady finds her lying flat on her back on the bench on the roof, lulled by the distant thrum of traffic and the smell of the roses that bob in the evening breeze. Jiwon wonders for the hundredth time how an old lady can look so elegant in a housedress holding a watering can. Maybe it’s the lipstick.
“What’s this?” Ajumma asks. “Are you brooding?”
Jiwon hmphs and flips over onto her stomach, her hipbones digging into the slats of the bench. “No.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ajumma has a way of asking where you can’t tell if she’s being polite or if she’s really offering.
Ajumma looks at her for a long moment, then turns back to her roses, humming as she waters them. She sways to the rhythm of her song like she’s forgotten Jiwon is there at all. Jiwon watches her, and okay, maybe she is brooding a little.
“But what if good things come from a lie? Isn’t the lie worth it, in the end?”
Ajumma doesn’t seem surprised by Jiwon’s outburst; she doesn’t even turn away from her watering, but after a moment she says, like they were in the middle of a conversation, “I don’t think there’s anything accomplished by a lie that couldn’t also be accomplished without one.”
That takes Jiwon aback. She can’t think of anything to say to that.
Ajumma puts down her watering can and picks up her clippers. “Lies damage relationships,” she says. “Perhaps once, a lie can be forgiven. But if you tell them often enough, no one will trust you. And without trust, how can you have any relationship at all?”
Jiwon sits up. “But Ajumma, they forgave me.”
Ajumma doesn’t ask who ‘they’ are. “Good friends give second chances. Extraordinary friends might even give third ones. But after a certain point, no matter how good the friends are, they have to face that maybe the one they forgave isn’t going to change.”
That stings. Maybe no one else would believe it, but Jiwon has tried so hard to change. “But Ajumma….”
Ajumma finally turns to her, raising a carefully-shaped eyebrow under the brim of her hat. “Yes?”
And then it all comes out. Hyojin, the UFO, the ghost in the shoe cupboard. Jiwon’s words trip over each other as they push their way out, and she tells Ajumma everything: about how she’d given Hyojin something to look forward to, about how she’d made Gangjoo laugh but then lost her, about the ghost that made Eunjae confess what she’d done, made Kang Eonnie think about what her life was worth, made Yoon Sunbae think about her brother’s spirit. She talks about how it had made her buzz with happiness when Hyojin hung on every word of her stories, how she let the ghost lie snowball because it was so interesting watching the other girls latch onto it. She talks and talks till she runs dry of words and then she moans and drops her head into her hands. Maybe she’s still just Liar Song after all.
For a long time, Ajumma doesn’t say anything, and when she finally speaks, it makes Jiwon jump because she’s right beside her. Ajumma has settled herself on the bench, her ankles crossed gracefully, and is pulling off her gloves.
“It isn’t that you told lies that accomplished those things. It’s that you told stories.”
Jiwon blinks. “What?”
The next question seems like a non sequitur. “Why do you want to be a reporter?”
Jiwon is a little bit flattered. She hadn’t really thought the landlady paid much attention to their lives beyond making sure that creepy men didn’t lurk around them. She had no idea that Ajumma knew her major, much less what she wanted to do with her life.
And so Jiwon actually thinks about this. She’s been asked before, on awkward blind dates and at events for her major. It’s a familiar question, one she wrote a whole essay answering for college admissions. But in the past, she’s answered it instinctively, almost flippantly—typical Song. Now she’s meticulous with her words, picking each one carefully.
“When I was a little girl, there was a big corruption scandal in my hometown. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but my appa watched the news every night, and I could tell it was a really big deal. And there was this reporter—Lee Yeri—who had cracked the story, and she was on TV every night, reporting all the details.” It’s hard to think of Lee Yeri now without a wince of pain. Once she’d just been her hero, as uncomplicated as that: invincible and powerful as Wonder Woman with her Lasso of Truth. But now, even though it’s been years since the UFO thing happened, she still thinks of the accusation—of the disappointment—in her hero’s eyes when she confronted her. It turns the memories of watching her like she was a superhero bittersweet. “And I remember Appa said one night, ‘That’s the only way to get real change, Jiwonnie. Brave people have to find out the truth and tell everyone.’ And after that, I always wanted to be a reporter.”
She shrugs. “Besides. What else am I going to do? My only real talents are nosiness and repelling men.”
“That’s not true,” Ajumma says. “You have another talent.”
Jiwon’s head flies up, her eyes eager. “What is it?”
“Telling stories,” Ajumma says. “Stories are powerful. When they’re true, when you reveal something that was hidden, they can affect real change, get people to act, just as your appa said. And when they’re made up, but everyone knows they’re made up, they can inspire people. Your ghost wasn’t true, but it inspired your friends. The stories you told Hyoin weren’t true either, but they inspired her last days. It seems to me that your problem is that you tangle up the true stories with the fictional ones. If you draw a line between the two, if you focus on telling the truth when it’s important and keeping your made up stories in a realm where everyone knows they’re made up, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be excellent at both. Lots of journalists also write novels.”
And then Ajumma rises, picks up her watering can, and, humming, goes back downstairs, leaving Jiwon alone with her thoughts.
Forgiveness, Jiwon realizes, is a good thing. But it’s even better when there’s nothing to be forgiven.
“Eonnie, you should write books!” Hyojin says more than once. “Your stories are better than book stories!”
Hyojin was a smart little girl, everyone said so. Even smarter than Jiwon was at her age. Maybe smarter than Jiwon is now.
The two notebooks are exactly the same except that one is pink and one is blue. The blue one is the same kind of notebook she’s used for her newspaper articles since arriving at college. She’s filled up seven of them with notes, quotes, brainstorming, and as she runs her fingers over the now-blank pages, it’s odd to think that soon this one will be full too. Full of real things that haven’t even happened yet—or that have, but no one else has discovered them. She’ll use her powers of nosiness to scent them out. She’ll reveal corruption, give voice to those who have never been able to tell their stories. She’ll affect real change.
She sets the blue notebook aside and picks up in the pink one, opening it up to the first page and smoothing her hand over the whiteness. Then, in purple pen, she writes at the top of the page STORIES.
It’s time to put her other talent to work.