Ideally one would begin with the invasion. Aerial bombing, artillery fire, mobilization of an infantry supported by armored vehicles, tanks, and helicopters. There’s a scramble to punch through the demilitarized zone before the US Seventh Fleet could bring its air power to bear. A minefield running the length of the 34th parallel and well-trained S. Korean soldiers armed with mortars and rocket propelled grenades stand in the way. Can you say Operation Janus? As tanks lay down suppressing fire, a fleet of helicopters convey a company of soldiers behind enemy lines, resulting in a mini two front war, and we know how that usually goes. But the enemy, especially a well prepared one, is full of surprises. High casualties is a given. Do we have any volunteers? It’s a rhetorical question because there’s only one man for the job: Captain Go of the grim visage and lean, sinewy build. “What’re we waiting for, sir?” asks Go, and the game is afoot. Meanwhile, 39 miles away, in an apartment with a chandelier, Mrs. Park waters her Japanese Peace Lily, wondering when that damn air siren for civil defense drills is going to shut off. Are they waiting for her to get to the basement of the building? She thinks about doing her civic duty when the phone rings. It’s her husband who tells her to pick Seung-hui up and head south. He tells her the North Koreans have invaded, but that the family would be safe in Daegu with his mother. He tells Teresa to ditch the car and walk the rest of the way if necessary. He would meet her there come hell or high water. And that’s the last she ever hears from her husband. Meanwhile, at Yongsan garrison, Private Kyle Burnham returns fire from a foxhole only to abandon his post when an enemy tank-led charge makes making a run for it a no brainer. Burnham, who joined the army lest a tobacco chewing grease monkey would be all that he would amount to, considers the 12 ft. high chain linked fence beyond which lies freedom. The top of the fence is concertinaed with barbed razor wire. So what if I get a little cut up? he psyches himself up. What’s the alternative? I put myself at the mercy of cult worshipping fanatics any one whom can go off the rail, at any time, and use me as a human pinata. Busan, here I come.
Curtis thus concocted the general outline of the story while he waited for Ae-ri who was late. He waited in a gazebo before which there was a rudimentary oval for track and field. The oval serviced the residents of two overlooking apartment buildings. A chill in the air that penetrated through his hoodie, persuaded Curtis to go for a jog. Alas, he didn’t take ten strides when a pounding in his head forced him to stop. He was still hung-over from last night. He decided to do a lap at a walk and was about halfway through when he saw Ae-ri at the Gazebo. Curtis cut across the grassy infield. As he neared, he saw her ashen hue, her chapped lips, and her lifeless eyes. She had on a wool lined jacket.
“My God….What happened?”
“You should sit,” Ae-ri said and took a seat herself.
When Curtis remained standing, Ae-ri gingerly crossed her left leg over her right, pulled out a cigarette, and tried to light it but for her shaking hands. Curtis immediately came to her aid, denied her refusal to be helped, and demanded to know what was going on. Why did she look as if she had spent the last week in a cave without food and barely enough water?
“You’re not going to sit?” she finally said in the wake of exhaling her second puff of smoke. “Fine, suit yourself. You’ll be happy to know, it’s all been taken care of. You have nothing to worry about. Bu—”
“So you had it aborted. Did Ju-yeon help you? How much did the procedure cost? Because I intend to reimburse the full amount? But….You said but….I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt…”
“My parents found out.”
Belatedly, Curtis took a seat. Clammy hands and a dry mouth made a triple whammy of the sinking feeling in his stomach which had been hitherto a standalone symptom when dread came knocking. He wondered who was going to lower the boom. And the fallout….What would that look like? Was he going to be in Ms. Shin’s database of sex offenders under the sub-heading Deviant Young Males? Curtis shivered and thought, Mr. and Mrs. Kim may wish upon me a fate worse than death by crucifixion, but the law is on my side. Ae-ri is on my side.
“Ahn dwae!” Ae-ri yelped.
“What? what’s the—”
What happened next had a precursor; to wit, Curtis thought about quitting varsity football 10 years ago. The benefits were manifold: no more M & M candy sale drives, no more feeling so sore and bruised the day after a game that it even hurt to get up from a seated position, and no more school days that begin and end an hour earlier and two hours later than everyone else’s. He wondered why he hadn’t thought of quitting earlier when Gary provoked him with, “You gonna let him get away with that? I know what happened. You made a move on Phoebe, and instead of settling accounts then and there, Vince drags the issue onto the football field where he conspires with his cousin to put you flat on your back, gasping for air, with an intentionally poorly thrown ball.” Subsequently, on what was supposed to be his last game, Curtis did the unthinkable. On a third and long, he made as if to block, lunging at the blitzing safety who must’ve thought, ‘What lame ass shit was that, 38?’ as he easily swerved past Curtis before homing in on Vince like a cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead. The sack, a clean hit from the blindside that had Vince seeing stars, made Curtis repeal his decision to quit if only to be a thorn by Vince’s side. And now, Curtis wondered if Logan would play the role Gary had ten years ago. He was going to have to as there was no one else to confide in. “What the hell happened?“ Logan would ask, and Curtis would tell him how he and Ae-ri were just sitting there in the gazebo, on a bench, when Ae-ri suddenly yelped and got up. Curtis turned only to be met by a slap on his left temple and ear, a slap that would’ve otherwise caught the back of his head. Curtis got up and faced Mrs. Kim with a slightly bowed head. Unlike Ae-ri, Mrs. Kim had almond eyes, high cheekbones, and rosebud lips. A clavicle-length hair with end curls framed an elliptic face. She had on jeans and a black angora sweater. Peering at Curtis with an intensity equal to a pair of magnifying glasses harnessing the sun’s rays, Mrs. Kim began to lay down the law. Curtis was prohibited from seeing Ae-ri again. Curtis was to give notice at work and leave S. Korea within the month. Curtis was never to speak of this incident as it never happened. The third demand was absurd, but Curtis didn’t doubt that Mrs. Kim could and would make the first and second demands stick and compel complaisance. “Am I understood?” Mrs. Kim asked. Curtis said he did understand, but that he couldn’t give an answer just yet. He needed time to think: two days after which he would get in touch, or if she preferred, he’d await her phone call as Ae-ri has his number. There was no response, just her almond eyes burning with homicidal rage, and Curtis thought, ‘Thank God, Ae-ri takes after her father!’