Welcome to another Kpopalypse fanfiction!
Do I really need to put a disclaimer here about mature content? You’re on Kpopalypse dot fucking com, so do the math, and read on if you dare!
NUMBER 46 – A FANFICTION BY KPOPALYPSE
You’re sitting down on a bench, one of a small row of benches, outside the foyer of the SM Entertainment building. It feels like home. You suppose that it should – after all, you’ve been doing this every day for at least four hours, for the past six months. When you tell people how much time you spend on this bench, they look at you strangely, but you don’t have a problem with it. As an avowed “company stan”, you see no shame in the label of being a “crazy fangirl”. Why should you feel ashamed about admiring the best music and the brightest stars that Korean entertainment has to offer? You’re not completely blind, you know that idols go through hardships, but that’s all the more reason for idols at a company to deserve your support. Besides, it’s not like there’s anything else that you want to do. You finished high school with mediocre grades, with certainly no prospects of going to University or having a lucrative career of any type, and just thinking about your future gives you a generalised feeling of directionless listlessness that you’d rather avoid. That “ah-hah” moment that your school friends had where they developed a passion and worked out what they wanted to do with their lives never really came for you, so in order to pass time while you hope for a similar epiphany you’ve buried yourself in the fantasy world of Korean pop idols. You know that the denial of reality can’t last forever and eventually you’re going to have to face some tricky decisions (a fact that your parents are all too keen to remind you of at regular intervals), but avoiding dealing with the bigger picture of your place in life is working out okay for you so far.
Although you’re the only one here right now, your activity isn’t that unusual. There’s a few other girls who also make the pilgrimage to the foyer benches. Most of the others are actually trying to be idols themselves, they consider the bench time to be necessary for getting to know the SM staff, a competitive edge that will assist them in being noticed when they are finally selected for their dream shot at being a k-pop idol. It’s not as crazy as it seems – one day a girl sitting at one of the benches was actually approached by the staff to go into the main building and try out for an audition. You’ll never forget the look on her face and the commotion it caused among the other girls. The audition lasted only a very short time and she didn’t succeed, in fact she left the building in tears, didn’t speak about the incident and none of you saw her again after that – but the fact that she was even considered an option by the staff in the first instance gave strength to everybody else present to keep following their dream. You’re not interested in the idol path for yourself however – you might be a little idol-crazy, but you’re not completely deluded. You’ve seen the outstanding beauty of many of SM Entertainment’s idols in the flesh and you know that winning the genetic lottery is a prerequisite to idol fame that you don’t posses, plus you’re not really musical at all. You enjoy learning some of your favourite k-pop dances, but that’s just for fun – you’re acutely aware that you’re not idol material. Also you know how hard idols work, and there’s no way you would be able to handle that kind of schedule, you would have to really want it to be able to handle the grueling conditions – and you don’t, you just enjoy being a fan.
Due to your vantage point, you’ve seen many of SM Entertainment’s idols at least once. You’re pretty sure about that – it can be difficult to tell, because it’s 2021 and everyone wears masks these days, but sometimes you just know who it is. It’s generally the females that you are able to identify – you’ve caught glimpses of all of Aespa multiple times as well as members of Girls’ Generation, but you haven’t seen anyone in Red Velvet yet, at least not for sure. It’s much rarer to sight any of the male idols, you’ve heard that most of them will use a secret entrance to avoid fans, but there’s been a few instance where you’re pretty sure you saw Kai from EXO – or maybe it wasn’t him, it’s hard to tell with the speed at which some people enter and exit the building. It was definitely an idol of some kind, they’re easy to spot as they are always moving with an entourage of sharply-dressed handlers to keep them protected from anything untoward from fans. You would never approach Kai or anyone else and do anything unwelcome of course – you’re too shy for that, and you don’t know what you’d say anyway even if an idol was directly in front of you – you prefer to just watch them, swoon over their good looks (even with the masks on, they’re still on another level from the general populace) and make a tally in your mental book of “idols I have seen for real”.
“Anyone interesting appear today?” – a voice from behind startles you. You turn around on the bench, and see your friend Simone, looking down at you.
“Wow, you scared the shit out of me! Don’t creep up on me like that!”
Simone often accompanies you on the benches, but her motivations are different to yours – like all the other girls who hang out at the benches, she has aspirations to be an idol trainee, whereas you’re just here for idol-spotting. She reaches into her handbag and produces a cigarette packet. “Wanna smoke?” she offers.
You shake your head. “You know I don’t. Anyway, why are you smoking? Don’t you want to be an idol?”
“I bet they all smoke too” she retorts, as she pulls a cigarette from the packet and lights up.
“If you get famous I’ll probably be your fan. You don’t want your fans knowing that you smoke, do you? Think of your image.”
Simone snorts. “What do you mean ‘probably’? You’ll be a total obsessed fangirl, hanging out the front of the building, waiting to catch a glimpse. You wouldn’t betray me.”
“I don’t know… what if you become problematic? What if the news sites give me money to write a tell-all? You should cover all your bases.”
Simone takes a long drag of her cigarette and exhales. “I’m sure that as a famous idol, I’d have ways of handling the likes of you.” Simone smirks and you both laugh. It’s good to have a friend you can joke around with. Her smile is interrupted by a voice.
“Excuse me ladies, this is a smoke-free area. Please move outside of the smoke-free zone.” A security guard points at the paint on the concrete pavers indicating the building’s exclusion zone, four metres of yellow-striped concrete by the front entrance where no smoking is allowed, officially for health reasons, but you guess more likely to keep up an appearance of cleanliness by not having a bunch of workers smoking at the building’s entrance. Simone mutters something under her breath and reluctantly walks over to beyond the yellow lines.
“You too”, say the guard, motioning at you.
“But… I’m not smoking!” you reply.
“No arguing – come on, move it.” The guard is polite but stern and you don’t want to cause trouble, so you comply, standing up and joining Simone. Once he sees that you are compliant, the security guard wanders away, returning his attention to the building’s entrance.
“Damn, I’m sorry. I always forget.” Simone starts dragging more on her cigarette, making an effort to finish the rest of it quickly.
“You’re not exactly endearing the staff to you. I think you lose idol points for this.”
Simone chuckles. “If I get powerful enough at SM, I’ll make it my first move to enact a new building smoking policy.”
The next day, you’re sitting at the benches again. Simone isn’t here, but you’re not alone – a group of a dozen other girls are also here. All k-pop hopefuls, they have organised themselves into two dance teams and are doing versions of SHINee songs. One group has given themselves the task of recreating the dance steps to “Lucifer“, and the other group is working on the choreography for “Don’t Call Me“. On some occasions when the dances are more straightforward, you join one of the teams just for fun and something to do, but both dances they’ve chosen for today are a bit beyond your ability and you don’t want to drag either of the teams down, so you’ve decided to sit out and just watch.
The dances are impressive, but watching the girls go through the same familiar steps over and over does eventually get boring, so you turn your attention back to the entrance of the building, and the staff visible at the desks beyond. You can see through the glass windows that two of the receptionists are having some kind of difficult situation. It doesn’t look like a fight, but they are both clearly stressed, as if something they are discussing is making them very anxious. You become curious about what it might be, but you don’t want to obviously eavesdrop, so you decide now is a good time to go to the toilet. The SM Entertainment building has a communal toilet in the foyer just inside the entrance, and while it’s meant for people who are on the ground floor or waiting to be seen by staff, the receptionists don’t seem to mind the regular fangirls using it as long as they don’t make a mess. You don’t really need to go right now, but walking to the toilet area means you have to walk right past the reception desk to get there, and this will allow you to catch a small fragment of the conversation on the way through, enough to satisfy your curiosity if you’re lucky.
You get up from the benches and walk through the main entrance, and then slowly through to the toilet entrance. Disappointingly, the two staff members at reception are saying nothing to each other just at the moment that you walk though, instead just staring at each other in thought, as if they are trying to solve a problem. Or maybe, they’ve detected that you’re close by and they’re pretending to be deep in thought rather than speaking, just so you can’t eavesdrop. Either way, your plan definitely didn’t work. Now committed to the facade, you cross the reception floor and open the toilet entrance.
The women’s toilet area has a polished granite look, with four cubicles along one wall and four sinks along the opposite wall. Above the sinks is a mirror wall, with an improvised sign on printed SM Entertainment letterhead paper sticky-taped to the far end: “SM FANS – WE APPRECIATE YOUR SUPPORT, PLEASE CONTINUE TO SUPPORT SM BY CLEANING UP AFTER YOURSELVES WHEN USING THIS FACILITY”, it screams in ugly bold font. One of the four cubicles is in use, the one at the far end. As you walk towards it you can hear a faint whimpering that has a ghostly quality as the sound reflects on the hard surfaces of the room. You notice that the door to the cubicle isn’t completely closed.
“Are you okay?” you ask.
Suddenly the whimpering turns into bawling and howling. Whoever is in there, is clearly not at all okay. You push open the cubicle door as gently as possible so as not to shock anybody inside. The door opens to reveal a girl lying against the wall on the far corner of the toilet, next to the bowl. She’s dressed in a school uniform, and looks about your age, maybe a year younger at most. She’s crying and shaking.
“Don’t tell her I’m in here! Don’t tell!” she pleads.
“Don’t tell who?” you ask.
The girl looks like she’s trying to say something, but the words don’t come out. She continues to sob.
You know that she doesn’t want someone to know that she’s in there, but who? However regardless of this, clearly she is in mental distress and needs help from a responsible adult. You walk out of the toilet cubicle quickly, and over to the reception desk. The two receptionists are still not speaking when you approach, so it’s easy to get their attention. You approach the closest one.
“Excuse me miss, there’s a girl crying in the toilets. I think she needs some help.”
The receptionist turns to you and says “a young girl in a school uniform?”
You nod. The receptionist immediately turns to her colleague, who then runs over to one of the security guards. Soon, there’s a small huddle of guards talking to each other, and they all quickly enter the toilet together. A few seconds later they emerge with the young crying girl in tow, and escort her through a corridor by reception and inside the building somewhere. As the girl walks past you standing by the reception desk, she shoots you a nasty glare, that makes you feel horribly guilty.
The receptionist, obviously noticing this, smiles at you. “Don’t worry – you did the right thing” she reassures.
“Will she be okay?” you ask.
“Yes, she’ll be fine. She’s just having a moment. Thanks for being responsible, we’re very grateful.” The receptionist smiles again, looking much calmer than before. You only wish that you felt similarly calm, but the way the girl in the toilet looked at you was very unsettling, like she was trying to stab you just with her stare. You spend the rest of the day watching the SHINee dances outside the front entrance and trying to push the incident out of your mind, with limited success.
The next day, you’re sitting at the benches again. This time you’re alone – it’s normal for the benches to be empty if the fangirls aren’t around, as it’s not a comfortable place that someone would willingly hang out at if they weren’t a super-keen SM fan of some kind, but if SM deliberately made the benches uncomfortable as some kind of strategy to discourage fan loitering, it definitely isn’t working. You think about your recently completed schooling and reminisce. While school was certainly boring and horrible, at least you had specific tasks to do, these have now been replaced by an empty void. You half-watch the entrance to the building as you idly play games on your mobile phone and think more about your life. What are you going to do with yourself? Surely you can’t just sit here forever… or maybe you can?
You stare through the window by the entrance for a while, ruminating about your future. You notice that the two receptionists that were on yesterday are both on again today. There’s not a great rush of people entering the building so they’re just talking to each other. Suddenly the receptionist who spoke to you yesterday, turns towards you and looks you straight in the eye. You stare back, and she watches you for a while. She then makes some kind of motion with her hand to you. You’re not sure what it means – is she telling you to walk over? You stare back, looking confused. She gestures again. Yes, she’s definitely tell you to come to her. Feeling oddly scrutinised, you go through the entranceway of the building and up to the reception desk.
“Can you clean?” she asks.
The question comes as a surprise. What is she talking about? “Clean? What do you mean? Clean how?”
“You know – floors, walls…?”
“Er… I guess so?” you reply.
You think about it. “I don’t know, pretty good I suppose?”
She smiles. “Since you were so helpful yesterday, I’m wondering if you could help us out. We’re in a bit of a tight spot and we need someone to do some cleaning. Immediately.”
“Is this normal? Don’t you have people who do that?”
The receptionist sighs. “It’s complicated. Look, there’s no real time to explain it, but there’s no pressure. But we’re in a slightly unusual situation and there’s probably an ongoing job in it for you if you do well. It’s just as a tryout. Are you interested?”
You start turning this over in your mind. Clean… inside the SM building? You’d get to see idols a whole lot more than you do now. Also, it’s not something highly skilled, how hard could it possibly be? Cleaning is hardly a “career” and it probably would be hard work but it would be good to have at least some sort of job that would probably get your parents off your back, and besides, it’s not like you’re qualified for much else.
“Okay, I’ll do it!” you exclaim. “What do I do?”
“Take this.” The receptionist hands you a swipe card, and a badge. “Pin the badge to your shirt, and take the elevator up to level five. You’ll know where to go from there.”
You take the items off the receptionist, and move past the desk to the corridor that houses the building’s lifts. There’s not much foot traffic in the SM building, so a lift is available immediately. You walk in, press the button labelled “5” and wait. While the lift ascends, you look at the two items. The badge is just a small rectangular piece of plastic that says the number “46” in bold text on one side, and has a safety pin on the reverse side, you pin this to your shirt pocket. When you look at the swipe card, your heart skips a beat. It has only one word on it: “Seulgi”.
The lift opens out to a very small foyer area that leads into a corridor, with a glass door blocking all access. You try to push open the door but it’s locked, you then notice that the door has a swipe card reader next to the handle. You move the card with Seulgi’s name on it close to the reader, it flashes green and beeps, and you hear the door unlatch. You walk through into a pristine white corridor flanked by security cameras, which has several doors on both sides, each also with a swipe card reader. Each door has a label, you wander the corridor and read them all:
Nobody is around. You nervously swipe the card against the reader for the “Seulgi” room, and walk inside.
The “Seulgi” room is a dressing room, and nobody is inside. It is completely trashed. On your left and right are rows of white dressing tables, all with full-size mirrors surrounded by incandescent bulbs, the type you’ve seen on so many idols’ behind the scenes social media photos, except that only about a third of the bulb sockets have bulbs in them. These rows of tables cover the entire wall space. One of the mirrors is completely shattered, revealing a plain plywood backing, another has a huge crack through it, and someone has written with lipstick on a third mirror the phrase “DIE SEULGI BITCH CUNT WHORE”. On the wall at the far end are two couches, and a long coffee table sits in the centre of the room. There’s an orange substance coating part of one of the couches, as well as the coffee table and floor, which you’re pretty sure is vomit, but it could be something else. Various makeup products are strewn about everywhere, and residue from various powders coats most surfaces. Each dressing table has an accompanying stool and most of them are stained or broken. Shards of glass and makeup product cover most of the floor. About the only object in the room that seems untouched or undamaged in any way is the door you just came through, and a small security camera in the far corner. A green light next to the security camera lens assures you that it is working.
After taking about a minute to get over the shock of your surroundings and inspect the area, you leave the room. You know what you have to do. You walk down the corridor to the room that says “cleaning” and swipe your card. Nothing happens. Feeling slightly panicked, you push on the door and it just opens anyway. Inside the cleaning room is a large laundry tub, a cleaning trolley and enough utensils and cleaning product to sanitize an entire hospital, or at least it seems like it. You stock up the trolley with surface spray, a mop, buckets of hot water, bleach, garbage bags and anything else you can think of that might be useful, then you wheel this back to the Seulgi room and get to work. You start by removing the feature that definitely bothers you the most – the lipstick writing on the mirror. Then you work on the vomit stains, because they stink so badly, then the glass shards, due to the danger they present, and then everything else. It takes over two hours to get the room back into a reasonably clean and tidy condition, within your limitations as a cleaner. You don’t know anything about upholstery or woodwork, so you can’t do anything about the broken stools or the structural damage to the desks, so you just shove the stools that are broken beyond all functionality in one corner, and put the rest under the desks. Once you’ve done all that you can, you give the security camera a cheerful wave, roll the trolley back into the cleaning room and head back to the ground floor.
When you arrive at the reception desk, the receptionist looks pleased to see you. You hand the “46” badge and the swipe card back to her.
“Good job!” she says. “Don’t go anywhere just yet, I need you to sign something before you leave.”
“Okay – what’s that?” you ask.
“Just some paperwork. This is just to say that you can’t talk about anything that you see inside SM Entertainment, or distribute any images.”
She hands you a piece of paper and a pen. You sign it straight away without really reading it – you know that you could not sign it if you wanted, but you don’t want to be seen as uncooperative or difficult and you do want to be invited back for more work, so it’s obviously best that you sign. The receptionist seems pleased by the speed with which you do so. You spend the rest of the day wondering what happened in Seulgi’s dressing room before you got there.
The next day, when you visit the SM building, you don’t waste any time sitting on the benches, instead you go straight to the reception desk. The same receptionist is there.
“Do you have any work for me?” you ask.
She seems happy to see you again. “Sure – sign these, and then we’ll get you started.” She hands you a stack of forms.
“What’s this stuff?”
“You need to sign these so we can put you on the payroll. You do want to be paid, don’t you?”
You hastily sign all the forms, something about tax declaration, something about a code of conduct or whatever, and give them back. Upon receipt of the forms, the receptionist gives you your badge and a new swipe card.
“You’re now an employee, so you can keep the badge this time. Just return the swipe card once you’ve done your tasks for today”, she instructs.
The badge is the same one from before with the number “46”, but the new swipe card says “Irene”, so you head to the lifts and then the fifth floor, and the room with Irene’s name on the door. Given the state of Seulgi’s room yesterday, you open the entrance to Irene’s room with great hesitation. To your relief, the room is already clean – pristine, in fact. The it occurs to you… if the room is already clean, why are you here?
“This room is already clean – why are you here?” a voice says, right next to you.
“That’s just what I was thinking…” you say, as you turn around.
Irene is sitting at the dressing table closest to the door. You didn’t see her when you entered, as the door opens in her direction. You’re awestruck – she’s even more attractive in person than in the SM Entertainment promotional shots. Irene notices immediately your reaction to seeing her, and raises her eyebrows, staring you down.
“Oh great. They obviously hired another fangirl. They must be desperate. So I guess you’re number 46”, she says, while looking you up and down, scanning your body. You feel weirdly objectified.
“I can leave if you want?” you offer.
“I keep my room spotless so I’m not bothered by the likes of you.”
Irene stares at you, as if waiting to see how you’ll react. After a few seconds of awkward silence, you say “Okay, I guess I’ll just go now…?”
You turn to leave when Irene interrupts. “Wait. I’m hungry. Why don’t you get me some fried chicken. That’s something you can do.”
You’re confused by the seeming randomness of this request. “Fried chicken?”
Irene glares at you without saying anything. The way Irene is reacting is jarring, and nothing like your perception of her. After prolonging the awkward silence for about fifteen seconds, Irene continues, calmly but coldly. “Your instructions are basic. Leave. Then, get some fried chicken. Then, bring it here. Then, put it over there, on that table.” She motions to the coffee table by the lounge, identical to the one in Seulgi’s dressing room except that it’s spotless. “Then, leave a second time, this time for good. Are we clear? Do I need to repeat any of this?”
“I’m sorry! I’ll get you some fried chicken!” you say as you quickly exit the room.
Fortunately you know a convenient fried chicken takeaway which is only a block away from the SM Entertainment building. You quickly rush there, wondering why Irene seems so mean compared to her image on the TV. Once you have a small bucket of chicken pieces, you return to the building and quickly back to Irene’s room, hoping that the offering will pacify her.
“I have the fried chicken!” you say to Irene.
Irene’s voice starts to become more heated. “Talking wasn’t in the instructions that I gave you. Did I ask you to announce to the world that you have the fried chicken? No, I did not ask this. I asked you to put the fried chicken on the coffee table. Why are you not doing what I am asking? Is it so hard to follow basic instructions?”
“I’m sorry!” you say as you quickly walk over and place the bucket on the table.
“Good, now remove yourself from my sight. Don’t let me see you again.”
You pause for a moment. Surely, this can’t be your only task for the day, but you’ve already somehow made Irene angry and you don’t want to anger her further by asking more questions. You look at her, waiting for some kind of signal.
Irene notices the delay. “You are still here. Remove yourself from my sight!”
You quickly exit without another word and without making further eye contact.
When you reach the downstairs reception desk, you hand the “Irene” swipe card back to reception.
“That was quick… you must have done a good job!” the receptionist beams.
You shrug. “There wasn’t much to do. Irene was kind of mean though, she’s so intense.”
“Oh, don’t worry about Irene – she’s lovely when you get to know her. I’m sure you’ll get to meet her again soon.”
For the first time ever, you’re not sure how you feel about meeting a k-pop idol.
The following day you present to reception again, wearing your badge. While the previous day of dealing with Irene wasn’t very pleasant, it was also quite short, and you didn’t really do much, so you have plenty of energy for more work. The receptionist is busy talking to someone else at the counter, but she notices you out of the corner of her eye and points to a swipe card on the reception desk, you take the card and proceed up to the fifth floor. It’s Seulgi’s card again.
Upon opening the door, a foul stench immediately hits you, nearly bowling you over. Everything in the room is trashed again. Holding your nose with one hand, you survey the room. A black substance is smeared over almost all furniture – you’re not sure what it is. It has a similar texture to human fecal matter, but you don’t remember human feces ever smelling quite this bad, so maybe it isn’t that. There’s also a strong urine smell, and a couple of the dressing tables appear to be caked in blood. Even more of the glass is smashed than last time, and every light bulb for the dressing tables is now either broken or missing. The entire room both looks and smells like feral animals have lived inside here for a month, however it was only two days since you last cleaned everything. On the one remaining intact pane of glass that remains is more lipstick graffiti – a stick figure kneeling over and defecating on another stick figure, the recipient has an arrow with the word “SEULGI” written across it, and “EAT SHIT SLUT” underneath. There’s still a lot of makeup products here but they are almost all broken, as if someone has made a conscious effort to individually break every single one, and every stool is now broken into twisted metal and fabric. Once again, the security camera in the far corner is the only object untouched by the carnage, the green light next to the lens still operational.
It’s impossible to not be physically affected by the sights and smells of the room, and the stench overcomes you, forcing you to drop to your knees and vomit. When your bare hands touch the floor you notice how sticky and foul-smelling the surface is, which inspires even more vomiting. To your surprise, when your vomit hits the floor it actually significantly improves the smell of the room by masking some of the other more virulent scents. After what feels like a good minute of emptying the contents of your stomach onto the floor, you get up, leave the room, enter the cleaning room, scrub the unidentified gunk off your hands and knees, stock up on the most powerful cleaning products you can find, and get to work, once again starting with the graffiti. Who could give such cruel taunts to an idol? Isn’t the purpose of idols to be universally loved, at least in theory? You don’t understand it, but you’re determined to restore the room to an inhabitable condition.
Five hours later, you’ve done the best you can. After several applications of scrubbing, hospital-grade bleach and disinfectant on nearly every surface you can reach, there’s still a lingering smell of decay from somewhere that you just can’t track down, but the room at least smells as presentable as you can manage. You’ve also had to throw out over 95% of the makeup products, what’s left and intact only fills a single dressing table with room to spare, which you try and present as pleasingly as possible. You don’t know what to do with the stools so you stack them in a corner next to one of the lounges, and you manage to remove all the remaining glass shards and pieces of light bulb. Feeling weary, you pack the cleaning equipment away and walk back down to reception. The receptionist smiles at you.
“You took a while, is everything okay?” she asks.
“I did what I could – but that room was horrible! Why is everything so trashed? And what’s with the messages?”
The receptionist shrugs. “Idols and staff like to have their fun. Don’t worry – you did great!” She beams a big smile at you.
“But there were threats? Is that even legal?”
The receptionist bends closer to you, so she can speak quietly. “It’s part of being a professional that we go about our jobs and don’t make a fuss of things. You did good today, if you keep doing well, you’ll keep getting more work. Don’t make it complicated for yourself.”
You nod in understanding. “Do you want me back tomorrow?”
“There’ll definitely be some more work for you if you show up!” The receptionist smiles at you. You return the smile, weakly.
You present at the reception desk again, wearing your badge. The receptionist hands you a swipe card. You look at the front of it, it says “kitchen”.
“Something different today. Good luck!” she says, smiling.
You feel slightly relieved. At least you don’t have to visit Seulgi’s room today.
When you open the door to the kitchen, your immediate feeling is one of relief – the kitchen is spotless, it even smells nice, with a slight lemon detergent aroma that you now know well as it’s the scent lingering from the tile-cleaning product you’ve been using frequently in Seulgi’s room this week. The kitchen looks polished and neat like something from a display home. A few seconds later, a feeling of dread overcomes you, as you see Irene sitting at the dining table next to the kitchen area.
“Oh hi, number 46.” she says, flatly. Irene eats from a bowl of corn chips, dipping a chip in salsa as she looks you up and down again, that objectifying stare.
“Hello Irene!” you say in reply, smiling and hoping for the best.
“So, as you can see – there’s no real cleaning for you to do here. So this makes me wonder why you are here. You have an odd habit of turning up where you are not required.”
“Reception told me to come to the kitchen.” you reply.
Irene smirks. “Oh, did they. That’s very cute of them, how thoughtful. It would be so fantastic if they could organise themselves properly sometime soon. I guess I’d better make you clean something so you can get paid.” Irene scans around the room with her head. “Say, why don’t you clean the oven? I don’t think that’s been cleaned in a while.”
“Sure, I’ll just go and get my things.”
“No. No things. It already smells too much like cleaning product in here. That lemon smell makes me sick actually. Just get in there and do it.”
You are confused. Clean with no cleaning products? “What? How?”
“With your tongue.”
You stare at Irene. Is she serious? “My tongue?”
Irene rolls her eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. Just get it done.”
Slowly and reluctantly, you walk over to the oven, kneel down, bend over and poke your head inside. Fortunately, it’s not that dirty, just a few burnt bits of black crust that would be easy to remove with a scrubbing brush. However there’s no way known that you’re actually going to be licking this clean. You start scraping away at the grime with your fingernails.
“Hey, no cheating! That doesn’t sound like licking to me” Irene scolds.
You continue to scrape with your fingernails, just quieter. It’s not like Irene can see exactly what you’re doing inside the oven anyway.
“You know, you really have a fat ass. It’s very noticeable when you’re bent over like that. You must spend a lot of time sitting on those fat asscheeks.” Irene’s words hurt, and you start to tear up silently. She continues to insult you as you clean. “Does you boyfriend like that fat ass, I wonder? Oh wait… you’re a k-pop fan, never mind, forget I said anything.”
You do your best to ignore Irene’s jibes, as you hear footsteps and the kitchen door open.
“Oh, hi Wendy.” says Irene.
Wendy from Red Velvet? Your “must watch idols” reflex immediately kicks in as you jolt upward, banging the back of your head on the inside of the oven.
Irene scolds you again. “Keep cleaning, 46! Nobody said stop! Nobody said hit your head like a dunce!”
The combination of the physical pain from the back of your head, plus Irene’s words, ensures you can’t hold the tears back any longer. However you manage to keep your crying silent while you continue to clean. There’s no telling how more extreme Irene will get if she notices you crying.
You continue to listen into the conversation. Wendy asks “we’re up to 46 already?”
“I know, right? She’s only been with us a couple days.”
“Of course. Hey, you’ll like this one. Look at her fat ass. I think she’s your type.”
“Irene, do you ever stop? Hey… what is she actually cleaning the oven with?”
“You know what these fangirls are like. She really wanted to do it that way. I think she’s trying to impress us with her dedication.”
“Irene you’re so full of shit. Hey 46, take your head out of the oven.”
Your head still hurting, you gradually remove yourself from the oven, and stand up to face Wendy and Irene, with tears running down your cheeks. You look at Wendy, she looks amazing, it’s enough to make you cry even more. How much suffering are you prepared to go through to see idols, you wonder to yourself.
Wendy looks you up and down, sympathetically. “Go dry yourself up and get some cleaning things, then come back.”
“That stuff stinks, Wendy”, Irene complains.
“You stink, you stank-ass hoe”, Wendy retorts. You leave the room quickly to wipe your face down, and grab some oven cleaner and a scrubbing brush from the cleaning room.
When you return Irene and Wendy are in full argument mode, both addressing each other and completely ignoring you while you get to work on the oven.
“I don’t see why I have to be the cancelled one who has to be on hiatus. You’re the problematic person in this group, letting the team down all the time with your stupid TV appearances. You’re so ignorant, it’s painful to watch.”
“Hey Irene, at least I didn’t beat a stylist so badly she had to go to emergency.”
“Wendy, you know that wasn’t me.”
“No, but it was still your fault.”
“Don’t you have an All Lives Matter march to go to?”
“Like you know anything about anything. You couldn’t even finish reading that book.”
“You know, the one about that woman from 1982 or something.”
“Well, it was boring, all she does is complain. It’s like 200 pages of this flaky chick moaning about how hard her life is. If I want that, I can take one of the trainees out for a coffee, I’ll get enough whining for five sequels.”
“Admit it that you just can’t read.”
“Admit it that you licked and sucked your way into SM.”
While Wendy and Irene argue, it only takes you a couple minutes to finish cleaning the oven now that you’re allowed to use proper cleaning products. You stand up to face Irene and Wendy. “It’s clean now”, you say flatly.
Irene smiles, coldly. “Good work fatty. Now shake your ass as you walk out the door and leave us alone.”
“Irene, can you for one second just stop being a bitch?” Wendy admonishes Irene, and then turns to address you. “Good job. You can finish up for today.”
You nod to Wendy and then leave, without making eye contact with Irene. As you walk down the corridor, Irene yells at you “Take the stairs, burn some calories!” You make a note to stan Wendy and not Irene in future.
When you reach the reception desk, the receptionist is distracted with a phone call, so you put your swipe card on the desk and run away quickly, without saying a word.
The next day, you present at the reception desk again, wearing your badge.
“Can I ask something?” You ask the receptionist.
“What is it?”
“I like my job, but can I please ask not to do jobs for Irene anymore? She’s bullying me!”
The receptionist smiles. “Oh nonsense, she means well, she’s just under a lot of pressure. I know it doesn’t always seem like it, but she has a good heart. Anyway I’ll give you a different job today, okay? Here, take this.”
She hands you a swipe card. On the front is written the word “Joy”. You’re pleased – surely whatever Joy’s room holds can’t be any worse than what you’ve been dealing with so far. Plus, you might even get to meet Joy! “Thank you!” you say to the receptionist. She smiles at you again.
You head up to level five, and open the door to Joy’s room, with some trepidation. As it swings open, you’re relieved to find that her room looks much like Irene’s. It’s not as spotless however, there is definitely some cleaning that needs to be done – the makeup products are everywhere and really need organisation, plus the glass mirrors and dressing table surfaces could definitely use a wipe-down with some surface spray. But it’s within the realms of normal human mess, certainly nothing like Seulgi’s room was. You breathe a massive sigh of relief, as you survey what needs cleaning, and then proceed to the cleaning room to pick up the required items.
When you open the cleaning room door and walk in, a cold object brushes across the face. You step back to take a look at what the object is – it’s a pair of feet, clad in school shoes. You look up. A girl dressed in a school uniform has a rope tied around her neck and is dangling from the cleaning room light fitting. You step back in horror as you mentally process what you’re seeing. You recognise her – it’s the girl you met in the toilets a few days ago, who was running away from someone. There’s a small ladder and a pool of bodily fluids at her feet. She has obviously been hanging here for a while, and you begin to notice the smell, which you’re surprisingly able to tolerate, perhaps because cleaning Seulgi’s room two days ago has desensitised you to disgusting smells in general. The girl has a badge pinned to her chest, just like yours, that you didn’t notice last time you met her – it reads “45”.
By the laundry tub is a folded-up piece of graph paper. You open it, expecting a suicide note. The piece of paper just says “CLEAN THIS”. You start thinking – what should you do, tell the reception, or ring the police? Reception are going to have to ring the police anyway, so you decide to ring the police yourself and save them the trouble. You dial the emergency number, the phone picks up immediately.
A computer voice speaks. “Hello, please state your emergency, do you require police, ambulance or fire brigade?”
“Police”, you say.
The computer voice continues. “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you. Please state again, do you require police, ambulance or fire brigade?”
“Police”, you say again, this time making an effort to enunciate the word as clearly as possible for the computer voice-detection.
“Our latest technology uses phone location services to track your emergency. We are detecting your location as: SM Entertainment building, 648, Samseong-Ro, Gangnam-Gu. Is this correct?”
“Yes”, you reply.
The voice continues. “Is the emergency at the location where you are right now?”
“Yes!” you reply.
“This address is under a special policing arrangement. Please wait while you are transferred.”
You wait, and then another announcement plays. “Welcome to SM Entertainment, the leaders in culture technology. Please wait and an operator will attend to your enquiry as soon as possible. Please note that all calls are monitored for quality and training purposes…”
You hang up the phone. If it’s going to transfer you to SM Entertainment, you might as well just go down to the ground floor and tell them yourself. You move back down to the reception desk as fast as you can. When you arrive, the receptionist can see the panic in your eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“There’s a dead person upstairs! In the cleaning room! It’s the girl who was in the toilet before!”
She looks shocked – but not as shocked as you expected. “Please calm down. Did you call the police?”
Being told to calm down is irritating and only agitates you further. “I tried but I couldn’t get through! It just transferred me to here!”
“Okay. Well that’s good, because speaking to the police about incidents inside SM Entertainment would be a breach of your non-disclosure agreement. Thank you for letting me know. We will handle it from here.”
The receptionist then picks up her telephone and starts making a call. You look at her, waiting for instruction.
She notices you staring at her. “In future please report all incidents directly to us. You can run along now, you can clean Joy’s room tomorrow.”
You feel confused. “I can’t just leave? Won’t the police want to question me?”
“We will take care of it. Go now, and remember that you can’t talk about this, this is very important.” The receptionist is focused on her phone call and waves you away.
You begin walking away, and start thinking to yourself that something’s not right. Then you realise that you still have the swipe card for Joy’s dressing room, you forgot to give it back to the receptionist, and she also forgot to ask for it from you. You guess that it doesn’t really matter, as she did say you could return tomorrow and clean the same room. However guilt is eating away at you. Did the other girl kill herself because of you, or because of something else? What would have happened if you hadn’t told reception where she was that day? Are SM just going to cover this up and downplay it, just like the receptionist is downplaying Irene’s behaviour? Don’t you at least owe the girl a proper investigation into what led to her death? You can tolerate Irene being a bitch, but you can’t tolerate this. You reverse direction and walk back towards the elevators. The receptionist immediately notices you.
“Hey, where are you going? You can’t go back in there!” she shouts.
“I’m sorry, I forgot something!” you shout back as you hop into an available lift and press the “close door” button. Then you realise that the lift doesn’t actually have a close door button and you’ve pressed the “open door” button instead, delaying the closing of the door by a few more seconds. You hear footsteps approaching, the receptionist is coming for you. Fortunately the door closes before she is able to reach you, and you ascend to the fifth floor. Once there, you know you don’t have much time. You’re certain that SM will be on their way to clean up the girl’s body and remove all evidence soon, and they’re probably now after you as well. You run straight into the cleaning room and pull your phone out of your bag, you take photos of the girl, the note she left, and some of the surroundings so the context of where she is in relation to the rest of the corridor is clear. You also grab the note and put it in your shoe. You’re just about to upload the photos to your personal cloud storage when you hear the lift arrive on the fifth floor. You quickly run and swipe your way into the nearest room that isn’t the cleaning room, hoping that you won’t be looked for.
You look around at your new surroundings and realise that you’ve made a terrible mistake – you’re in the Seulgi room. The entire floor is stained with blood marks, as are most of the walls. A girl lies on the couch, dressed similar to the other girl that was hanging up, she’s covered in blood. She also has a badge pinned to her chest, bearing the number “43”. Another girl lies next to her on the floor, also in a school uniform but face down, so you can’t see her badge but you assume that she is also wearing one. Both girls obviously died in a brutal manner but it’s not clear from looking at them who or what was responsible, and you dare not look closer to try and find out. Everything else in the room besides the couches in the far corner, and of course the security camera, is destroyed and in pieces. You see the green glow from the light by the camera lens, and it dawns on you how stupid it was for you to enter any of the dressing rooms.
Behind you, you hear the door open, so you turn around. It’s the security guard. “Stop!” he shouts, reaching for something on his belt, before noticing the state of the room and the two dead bodies. For a moment he’s frozen in shock, and you use this moment to push past him and back out into the corridor. He doesn’t expect this, and fumbles his footing, then starts giving chase. You look behind you as you run – fortunately, he’s a fair way behind you and probably not any faster than you are, but you don’t know where you’re going either, so you figure he’s going to catch you eventually unless you can lose him somehow. You hope that the Joy swipe card gives you access to somewhere more useful than the dressing rooms. You run past the other dressing rooms for the Red Velvet members. You won’t make that mistake again or you’ll be trapped… but what else would offer an escape route? You run by each other door and look at its label, this is easy to do while running as you’ve been in this corridor quite a lot over the last few days, so the positions of the doors you already have mostly memorised. “Balcony” – no, a dead end surely. “Sun” – what does that even mean – better not risk it. “Electrical” – maybe you could cause a distraction or something. You swipe the door and it doesn’t lead to another room at all, it just grants access to some sort of weird switchboard-type appliance directly behind the door with a ton of different levers on it. You mash your hand over a few random levers, as that’s all you have time to do, it doesn’t seem to make any obvious difference to anything. You resume running and looking at doors. “Staff” – a staff room? There’s no way you’re going in there. “Control” – a control room is likely to be small. “Staging” – a stage? Wouldn’t that be kind of big, with multiple exits? You decided to give it a try, you swipe the Joy card and the door opens, into a small auditorium. There’s an event happening on stage with music, but only one or two people watching, and the seats are pitch black. You run as fast as you can, into the darkness of the furthest corner away from where you came in, and hide behind some chairs in the second-furthest row. Nobody on the stage or in the audience notices you.
Soon, the security guard appears at the entrance that you came from. He looks around but realises he has lost you somewhere in the darkness. He then pulls out a torch from his belt and starts scanning all the seats multiple times. It’s easy to avoid his gaze – whenever you see the beam of his torch light coming your way, you just duck behind the back of the seat in front of you until it stops being bright. To really see you properly he’d have to actually come up to your row. After about a minute of scanning, he approaches someone in the audience at the front of the stage. You watch the stage event, it’s some kind of audition, but you’re too dazzled to really be able to see who is involved. The security guard then steps up to the stage and grabs the microphone.
“We have a lady in the audience who is wanted for questioning – can we please bring the house lights up so we can search the auditorium, thank you.”
You know you don’t have long before you are caught if you stay where you are. You carefully slip from your hiding spot into the aisle, and then to the closest exit you can find – the auditorium toilet. When you enter, you heart skips several beats. Irene is here, smoking a cigarette and applying eye shadow. She immediately turns to look at you.
“Oh, hello again number 46.” she says.
You try to walk past her, into the far cubicle, but right as you attempt this a voice comes over the stage intercom. “Number 46, please present yourself to the stage. By order of security personnel. We just want to talk to you.” When Irene hears this, she immediately grabs you by the front of your shirt and pins you to the wall with her hands.
“Looks like you’re wanted.” You try to struggle, but Irene is surprisingly strong and her grip holds you fast.
“Don’t tell them I’m in here! Don’t tell!” you plead.
“You’re so annoying and useless, and you keep turning up where you’re not wanted, or at least, not wanted by me. They want you, and I really don’t want you, so why shouldn’t I give you to them? It seems like a sensible arrangement.”
“I’ll do anything for you! I’ll be your personal slave girl! Anything at all!”
Irene rolls her eyes deeply. “Heaven forbid – anything but that! Do you know how many desperate people are already queueing for that position?”
You’re speechless. This wasn’t the reaction you expected to your plea. Irene continues. “These pathetic creatures who just worship the ground I walk on for no reason are at least as irritating as the ones who hate me. Lecherous idiots who fantasise that I’m going to be their dominatrix or something, I can’t stand it. If they really wanted me to dominate them that much, they’d just let me put a bullet in their brain and be done with it. But people like that never work that way, it’s always on their terms, so it’s really about them controlling their image of me. They’re still the ones in control, the whole time. This really makes them such complete hypocrites. Can you see why I don’t like this?”
You’re not sure if you completely grasped any of what she just said, especially as Irene’s grip pinning you to the wall is really starting to hurt and it’s making it difficult for you to concentrate on what she’s saying, but you decide to go along with it anyway. “Yes”, you gasp.
“Now are you agreeing with me because you actually agree with what I just said, or are you agreeing with me because you know that’s what I want to hear?”
“Yes!” you gasp again.
“Yes what? Which one? I gave you two choices here. I feel like you’re not really listening to me at all. This is starting to make me angry. I am feeling like you are not really caring about what I am saying.”
“I’m sorry! It’s just that you’re really hurting me!”
“I’m hurting you how? You mean this?” – Irene doubles down on the force that she’s using to pin you to the wall, by changing her grip so her knuckles dig into the gaps between the bones of your ribcage – “Does this hurt, does it? Is this what you’re talking about?”
“Yes!” you whimper.
“Okay, so are you listening to me now or not? Because I’m about to tell you something very important. I won’t tolerate any wavering from what I am saying, or any misunderstanding. I’m going to tell you how things are going to go. Please listen without interruption. Are we clear?”
You nod your head.
Irene continues. “Oh good. So. I know why you’re running. I know why you’re here, and I know what you’re thinking – about everything. You are going to go out there, and present yourself on the stage.”
You start shaking your head and crying.
Irene rolls her eyes. “Don’t be like that. Don’t worry, I’m sure that it seems serious, but nothing is actually going to happen to you. You don’t have to tell them the truth. Tell them that you panicked and dropped your medication, that type of thing always works, and they can’t really say anything about it. I will back you up on this if they ask me about it. They’ll let you go after that. Then, you’re going to hand your cute little number 46 badge to the front desk and tell them that you can’t work here anymore for health reasons, and that while you definitely love it here, and everybody is very nice to you, especially me, Irene, who is always very sweet to everyone, you don’t want to be a burden on the company. Then you’re going to go home and not set foot anywhere within the vicinity of the SM building ever again, and we will both go our separate ways, and you will never speak of the events that you have seen inside these… four walls. God, I hate that album, f(x) were useless after Sulli left. Anyway, if you do this, I guarantee – nothing bad related to these incidents will ever happen to you. However if you were to tell anyone about anything that goes on here – and I really do mean anyone and anything – this could be problematic for you. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
You nod your head, with tears silently running down your face.
Irene smiles coldly. “It’s been kind of weird being this physically close, because you’re really not my type at all, so I am now going to release the pressure on your ribs, and you are going to walk calmly to the stage. Are you ready to proceed calmly as I instructed and not do anything silly like run away at a fast pace and try to escape, or any other foolishness?”
“Yes” you say quietly.
Irene finally removes her knuckles from your chest. You lie back on the toilet wall, while you wait for the pain in your ribcage to subside. You briefly think about running again, or at least spitting in Irene’s face, but you think about the bodies in Seulgi’s dressing room and you decide against it.
Three weeks later, you’re spending an evening at home in your bedroom, sitting on your bed and playing with the laptop you used to use for school, looking at k-pop websites. Since the incidents at SM Entertainment, you’ve been spending a lot more time in your room, looking at idols on social media instead of trying to see them in person. Your life still feels as directionless as ever, but you don’t really mind for now. You’ll work out what you want to do with yourself eventually, in the meantime it’s rent-free to live with your parents. You hear a knock at your bedroom door.
“Come in” you say.
The door opens. It’s your wannabe idol friend, Simone.
“Hi, how are you going?” she asks, while giving you a hug. “You know, I haven’t seen you on the benches lately. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah I’m alright. I just got sick of hanging out there. I didn’t want to be an idol anyway, so I don’t fit in with the others, and nothing ever really happens, right?”
Simone nods. “I never knew how you tolerated it for so long when you didn’t do many of the dances or have any big dream of fame.”
You shrug. “I guess I just lost the fascination for it. The idols all start to look alike after a while. Especially with masks on. Maybe I’ll start doing it again when we don’t have a pandemic and people aren’t covering their faces.” You know this is a complete lie, but you also know that there’s no way you can tell Simone the truth. “You’re still trying to be an idol though, right?”
“Yeah, still chasing the dream. You know there are SM auditions soon, and I have a feeling I’m going to get lucky! Anyway, I have to go, I’m actually on the way somewhere, but I just thought I’d drop in on you and make sure you were doing okay. The girls have been worried about you, and you know we never hear from you on social media!”
“I don’t really check my personal socials. I just have my accounts to lurk idols. Please tell everyone that I’m doing fine – I just need to have a break from it!”
Simone smiles, and you smile back. She gets up from your bed and walks out the door, when you notice something on your bed, an object that wasn’t there before. It must have fallen out of her pocket.
“Hey! You dropped something!” you shout after her.
Simone opens your bedroom door again. “What is it?”
“Oh… whatever this is.” You play dumb. You know exactly what it is.
You hand her the small white piece of plastic, with a safety pin on one side, and on the other side, the number “47”.