Magnetic South

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What happens when two completely unprepared foreigners, who are also jerks, must find a way to survive a global disaster in a society that they couldn't navigate successfully, even on a good day?

Submitted: August 06, 2010

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Submitted: August 06, 2010

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Magnetic South

Alex set some books on the table and took a deep breath. It was too dark to see the blackboard, and candles were a rarity. Woo-Jin had set up a bicycle-powered light that students intermittently rode, allowing the rest of the class to see the notes. It wasn’t a perfect system - especially since, with such little food, students were only strong enough for 5 or 10 minute rounds. Alex took the bulk of pedaling, making the English class more of a lighted study hall. On the up-side, he was finally getting in shape.

The basement was crowded, dark, and muggy with the sweat and stench of too many humans living in one space, like animals. They were getting hungry. Just three weeks ago they all had roles in an active and thriving society - even Alex felt needed. Now they were just ... living, somehow.

More showed up every day - the wounded, the crying toothless, miserable children, desperate mothers, and fidgety ex-military who came to the temple, looking for hope, food, or a moment’s silence. Alex tried to remember the suffering, but could sometimes only see the dependent masses as a heavy burden to the living. Even Alex, who spoke no Korean and had few basic survival skills, contributed more to the Community of Life and Hope at the Seoul Lotus Blossom Zen Center than the ones who just showed up begging - and they just kept coming. Were there any Northern spies among them? It was impossible to tell. Everyone was famished now, and all were suffering. It was absurd. In the middle of all of the work to be done, he was required to meditate several hours each day - sitting in silence, cross-legged. He wanted to help, but more often than not, there was nothing he could do.

“Let the dead bury the dead.” Alex sighed to himself, picking up a textbook on grammar. He began to write the day’s lesson on the board.

Kimberly finished writing, speaking slowly so that her students might have a better concept of how the words should sound. She flicked the lights on and off, like she did so often to wake up those who were sleeping. “Okay, wake up. Bedtime was last night. Now it’s time to write.” She walked up and down the rows of desks as her students wrote, thinking of lunch - which was always a pepperoni pizza.

“Dabok. Don’t chew gum in here. That’s going to cost your team a point.” She said, walking over to the point board, and erasing one point from the laminated paper. The students were all writing. It didn’t take long for her to get command of a classroom. She leaned against the teacher’s desk at the front of the room and enjoyed the fruit of her labor - silence. Complete silence - not even the heater was running. She then realized that the lights went out and the heater turned off.

“Dabok! What did you do?” Min-Ju teased in Korean, but Kimberly didn’t understand. “No Korean! Min-Ju. You just cost your team a point.” She returned to the point board and erased another line that her dry-erase marker had left just moments ago, when Sally (That was her English name) got a perfect score on her test. Sally sighed - she was always earning points for her team, and her classmates were always losing them. She realized that, in Kimberly’s class, she would never have a pizza party.

Class continued, and only after five minutes did Kimberly begin to get annoyed. There was a break scheduled for 4:30, and she hoped that the bells would be working at that time.

They weren’t.

Sitting in silence on the top floor of the temple, Alex was supposed to be thinking of ways to avoid thought. There were rare moments on the top floor when he felt his consciousness melt away into his real being, whatever that was. Most times, he was reliving some old conversation with a foe from his past - forgetting that he wasn’t supposed to be thinking of anything. Mostly, it was nice to think of something other than how much his legs hurt from sitting cross-legged for 50 minutes at a time. Alex never figured out how the Zen Master always knew when he wasn’t really meditating, but the Zen Master knew many things that Alex didn’t.

Many years ago, at In-N-Out in Los Angeles, Alex had been sitting across from his friend Oscar. Oscar had one tattoo - it was of the Triforce from the popular video game “The Legend of Zelda” - and it was located on the part of his right arm between his bicep and tricep muscles. Alex always admired it - he didn’t have enough money for the game, though, and certainly didn’t have enough for a tattoo. A thought occurred, though not for the first time, in Alex’s mind as he was eating a double-double, animal style. The synapses connected in his brain, caused his eyes to cast a downward look which made him more aware of the burger and the wetness of the beef’s grease on his lips. Out of those lips, his thought was expelled.

“About how many cows do you think have died just to get me to this point in my life?”

Oscar answered without letting the thought get to him.“Nine thousand.”

Alex gave him a flat look. “That seems high to me.”

Oscar made an expression that showed he didn’t really care. Alex made a move to justify himself.

“It’s just that, you know I could never kill a cow, and I feel bad about asking someone else to do it. Well, paying someone else to do it, anyway. Then cook it for me. And most contagious diseases humankind has encountered originate in the animals that humans eat. It’s like poetic justice from the universe. Remember e-coli in the spinach? That wouldn’t have even happened if we didn’t cram cows together in death-camps and shove antibiotics down their throat that probably don’t even work anymore.”

“Damn the man.” Oscar offered tiredly.

Alex put his burger down and wiped his hands neurotically. “Do you want this?” He asked, motioning to the burger without even looking at it. Oscar gave him a look of off-put annoyance.

Alex smiled, and quietly laughed once, expelling a soft amount of air through his nose, even though his legs were killing him. Then he didn’t smile, because he knew that he should be meditating - and that laughing alone in a silent room was the mark of a truly insane person.

Kimberly walked to the teacher’s lounge at 4:30. She had to let her students go on break without the Pavlovian tone of the bell - something that made everyone uncomfortable. The sun was setting, yet the omnipresent lighted signs that plaster all Korean shopping centers were still unlit. It was getting difficult to see in the interior hallway, and a few students took the opportunity to play around. She thought that the students might take the opportunity to misbehave, but they were all comparing cell phones and speaking to each other in hushed tones. Maybe they know not to speak Korean around my classroom. Kimberly thought, allowing herself to be proud for a few seconds.

She needed an answer about the electricity, and she needed one quick. As head teacher, many people saw her as a liaison between the foreign and local staff. She saw Ye-Lin trying to use her cell phone, and motioned to her for a word. Mr. Park, the vice president of the company, was in his office, and he was not pleased. The three of them cleared out the teacher’s lounge, with its large windows and faint smell of stale food, and used the light of the setting sun to discuss their strategy.

“Where is Alex?” Mr. Park asked Kimberly with a casual attitude that scared everyone. “I have no idea.” She answered defensively, which was probably not the right answer. She picked up her cell phone, about to make an offer to try and call him, but saw that she had no reception. Mr. Park turned to say something to Ye Lin. Actually, Alex, you picked the perfect day to disappear. Kimberly thought. The last thing she needed was his warm, moist, fatty breath fogging up whatever room he was being worthless in.

“Internet is down, and some parents are coming to pick up kids. If parents come, we let the kids go, but not all parents have come.” Ye Lin explained. Mr. Park himself didn’t speak much English, which Kimberly thought was very impractical for the Vice President of an English education company. But of course, he was a older man, and this was The Republic of Korea.

“Until there are no more kids, we have to stay.” Ye Lin said. Kimberly sighed and pinched the top of her nose, feeling a headache coming on. Arguing would be pointless. She understood that this decision came from Mr. Park, and none of those decisions could ever be refuted. I’ll probably have to stay with John. She thought, and pictured the bumbling 14-year-old who was rapidly developing into Korea’s number-one sociopath. The orange of the setting sun turned to pink, and Mr. Park said something to Ye Lin, who produced seven flashlights and batteries from a cabinet under the bookshelf.

Buses and shuttles were supposed to be bringing in more students for the later classes, but with no cell phones, it was impossible to tell if they were running on-schedule.

Mark knocked on the door - Kimberly recognized his agitated knock right away, since nobody else at the school had the audacity to knock the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm.

Tap - ta ta - tap - tap. No response, only the icy glare that Mr. Park and Kimberly produced together, focused on the door. “Are you going to let any of us in on whatever you’re deciding right now, please?” Mr. Park made a face that showed he was clearly not impressed, and that was the last thing Kimberly saw with the light from the setting sun.

It was nighttime. The lights of a once-expansive city were all extinguished. The numerous and enormous domino-like apartment skyscrapers could only be seen through the starlight that they blocked. A more yellow-red speck of light came from a the windows of a few of these apartments, which Alex deduced to be fires. A larger glow came from the other side of the Han river - a distant confrontation of some kind. Only the occasional, blunted pop or low rumble provided additional sound. It was night the way many people forgot - mostly quiet, and filled with billions of stars. The cold air was cutting through Alex’s garb as cleanly as a knife would, but the wind wasn’t blowing too hard, and he was working after all. Gardening. “Moon gardening.” He said to himself. They were taking out all of the carrots delicately - each one would be savored. After the carrots were removed, they began digging. Woo-Jin was planning something that he couldn’t explain very well.

“‘S’right.” Replied Nicholas. “D’ye ever think ye’d see tha’ many?” He asked, motioning to the heavens with a tired swing of his arm. It took Alex a moment to realize he was talking about stars.

“I did once, in Wyoming.” Alex replied. That seemed as long ago as anything else in his life. He paused to look at the stars, and then felt his body enter a full pause. He was breathing, his heart beating, and he felt the heat around his neck pulsating, seemed to feel the collar of his shirt through his neck, though until that moment he didn’t feel much of anything. “Wow.” He said, and returned to work, silently.

“Congratulations, by the way.” Alex huffed.

“For wha’?” Nicholas asked. He stood up and rested his fists on his hips.

“I think we achieved...that 80%...emissions reduction goal.” Alex said, sweat pouring over his eyebrow and into his eye. He squinted and blinked fiercely. Nicholas began a hearty laugh. It was good to hear a Scot’s laugh, especially amid all of this chaos. It felt good to sweat, working in the cool wind. Despite the chaos, the death, the paranoia, the confusion, and the fear, things felt good. Maybe I’m going crazy. He thought.

It took only two days of clear roads for Seoul to be cured of the noxoius smog that plagued it since the 70s. The only cars that worked anymore were ones with carburetors in place of fuel-injection, and owners had to be smart enough to restart them. With the move towards clean cars, neither carburetors or people who appreciated them seemed to be around.

“Do you know anything about cars?” Alex asked.

“I know I need one that works.” Nicholas replied.

“Yeah.” Alex said. The large, blonde Scotsman was hiding something. He was hard to approach, even though, as the only other foreigner at the temple, Alex thought for sure that they would have some kind of connection. Instead, Alex did most of the talking. Maybe he needed a new approach.

“Is there something on your mind?” Alex asked. Nicholas stared at him incredulously.

“Somethin’? Dunno. Yeh, maybe. Maybe it’s a bit o’ this that’s happenin’. Y’know. Mass murda. Genocide.” Nicholas said, in reference to the large, suffering city. “More like fratricide, actually.” Alex corrected, since they thought most of the deaths and fights were between Koreans. “An’ you think oither side has a great big love affair with for’ners, do ye?” Nicholas challenged. Alex silently admitted that neither he nor Nicholas had much of a chance surviving to see New Korea, or whatever they were going to call the place when the International Forces intervened...if they intervened.

Seoul was impossibly large - a true metropolis with a population higher than that of New York City, which, if Woo-Jin was right, was also a complete disaster area. People called the apartment complex domino towers, and Alex thought it was really appropriate now. Seoul, like all cities, was built dependent on electricity - and without it, society faces a collapse. The grid collapses in multiple swift clicks, then the city government, then the infrastructure itself.

“D’you really think we’re going to get out o’ here aloive?” He asked, huffing and sweating. “This country has experience bein’ invaded more than 3000 toims, an’ last toim I checked, neither you nor me was in, y’know, peak physical condition. I’ve half a moind t’ take these carrots an’ make a run fer’t.”

“Run? I thought we were here for loife...life.” Alex corrected himself. He found it easy to slip into the accent of the only other fluent English-speaker, but he didn’t want to be insulting. “That’s what you said. We’re here for life. Besides, where would you go? We’re on a peninsula, the airport is a graveyard, and I don’t think we could swim past North Korean submarines!” Alex threw his spade on the ground. The anger came from nowhere. He was so docile just a moment ago, maybe the hunger was getting to him.

The two of them just stood there, awkwardly, for a few minutes. The wind blew through a few trees, and the distant pops and gun reports of a war torn city echoed through the night sky.

“Do you know anything about cars?” Nicholas asked, breaking the silence.

“No.” He said. “I wish I did, though.”

Alex was now fully aware of how much time he had wasted on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and a plethora of other websites that contributed nothing to the world. What he wouldn’t give for fifteen minutes on the internet now. Five minutes for emails to the family, ten minutes to research basic survival skills, he thought. It had always been at his fingertips, but instead he was making some stupid comment on somebody’s ‘wall.’

Alex was an art major in a world that desperately needed doctors, engineers, and good leaders. He once theorized that the internet would revolutionize the classroom, making the teacher almost unimportant. After all, the internet knew more than any single person ever could know.

“I heard once that we will remain free, so long as we do not deserve to be slaves.” Alex said to Nicholas, whom he could no longer see.

After a moment, Nicholas responded through the darkness. “Who the hell deserves to be a slave?”

One drunken evening, and there were none of those anymore, Alex had gone out for beer and cocktails with a number of his coworkers. Somehow, he ended up at a table playing drunken “Truth or Dare” Jenga with people he encountered every day. In sum, it was one of the worst ideas he had ever had.

The head teacher at school, Kimberly, had a problem with Alex. Alex was new, friendly, and conservative - in the political sense, but also in the sense that he wouldn’t talk about politics. Alex had taken it upon himself to order pizza for the school’s 4th-of-July party, which the Canadians, including Kimberly, also begrudgingly attended. He figured out a way to make a profit from the teachers by asking for slightly more than they owed, and Kimberly took issue with this. At first, nobody found out. Nobody else was willing to coordinate the pizza order, so for a brief moment, Alex was quite proud of himself.

She took out a center plank from the midsection of the Jenga tower and placed it on the top. It waggled slightly, but with no real threat. She exhaled in relief. “Okay, Truth.”

“How many guys have you had sex with?” Bruce asked.

A few teachers got excited. Not Alex. Stupid Bruce. He thought. He was too tired for this middle school BS, it was 2AM and he didn’t want to spend all weekend recovering from an evening - early morning - with people he didn’t really like.

Bruce was a heavier than Alex, but with a much higher muscle mass. Alex gave a worried look at Bruce’s pectoral muscles, which he thought would explode out of his shirt when he asked the question. “Between Iraq and a hard place.” Alex’s disgusted grimace turned into a dirty grin - his trademark smile. “Iraq” was what he called the silent war between himself and Kimberly, which came from his bad habit of looking at her breasts during the Tuesday meetings - anything to make them interesting (the meetings, that is).

“Less than ten.” Was the answer, which Alex didn’t think was much of an answer, not that he cared. Maybe that’s why they hated each other - they both had a knack for politics. “Next.” She said. She was bothered by Alex’s smile, he was bothered by her controlling attitude. “I’m out of here.” Alex said, and tried to move, but stupid Bruce got in his way. Bruce pushed Alex back into his chair, but the shifting of weight knocked over the Jenga tower. The crowd applauded.

“Damn it.” Alex said. Knocking over the tower meant truth and dare. Alex immediately started blushing. “Truth!” A girl named Alice shouted from the far end of the table in a manner that gave Alex a new mental definition for ‘sloshed.’

“Who was the Prime Minister of Canada in 2010?”

“Oh, he’s not gonna know this one.” Said Kimberly’s forgettable crony, whose name Alex never bothered to learn. “Americans don’t know anything about Canada.” Kimberly added quietly “Especially fat ones.” But Alex heard it, and he meant to leave.

“Okay, tonight sucks, and I’m leaving. I hope you all get in terrible car accidents this weekend.”

“Stephen Harper, by the way.” Sarah, Kimberly’s friend, answered.

“I KNOW!” Alex shouted. “I read The Economist, okay? What, do you think I’m an idiot? Nobody cares about Canada, because it’s a waste of time. I’m going home.” He started to push his way out of the seat, first through Bruce, then, understanding somehow that squeezing past Bruce would be even more humiliating, started to push his way past Kimberly.

“You got it wrong, an’ that means you have to do a doubledare.” Alice said, looking incredibly stupid.

“An’ you shouldn’t joke about that car accident thing!”She added in a shaming voice, and Alex made an exasperated gesture. He hated them all.

“Dare-time buddy!” Said Mark, a 30-year old Canadian who Alex thought was on his side. It was becoming clear that there were no sides. Alex made a mental note to avoid Mark, who he presently wanted to punch in the face. “Make out with Kimberly for twenty seconds!” Bruce shouted, oblivious to Alex’s eyes.

Alex was breathing heavily, hesitating about what to do with his anger. A few of the teachers were feeding on the drama that was about to ensue. Kimberly and her friend were developing other toxic things to say to him, and a few Korean women at the bar started to laugh and stare at him - the foreigner. The fat foreigner.

He slammed his fist on the table, quieting the table, but not the room. He wanted them to be afraid, and he felt the fire slug of drama on the back of his neck glowing red. The women at the bar were actually staring. Different rules. And even if he did eventually woo a Korean woman, he would always be playing against the home team.

Misery.

The memory continued, cramped his consciousness with the same acute pain that he got from sitting in meditation for fifty minutes at a time. He grabbed another carrot by the stem and yanked, but the bulk of the root stayed buried in the cool soil. He paused for a moment to quiet himself and re-concentrate on the task.

“I’m a different guy now.” He said, more hoping than believing. The illusion of a perfect, tender, and caring woman had led him to Korea in the first place, and he was no longer led by illusions. He didn’t want someone to dote on him endlessly, and he wasn’t dominant or chauvinistic. All he wanted was a warm bosom on which to lean his weary head, but chasing that had driven him insane, and almost certainly made him more lonely. “Poor little fat man.” He heard David Bowie sing from an episode of Extras. But suffering stems from desire. He remembered of the dharma talk. I need to stop chasing things. Maybe he was no different. The world was definitely different.

Maybe that was enough.

Silence.

Stars.

Charlie’s mother had still not shown up. He was in Kimberly’s first class of the day, so it was weird to see him in her room after sunset - it was weird to be there, using only flashlights, and saving the battery. She was impressed by Charlie’s ability to sleep so soundly in his desk, especially considering everything that was going on. She acknowledged the stark truth - most of these students worked so hard at home studying that they didn’t have much time to sleep anywhere else. She liked Charlie, and was sad that she didn’t know his Korean name. This fake classroom connection felt so impersonal, and she thought that she could use a friend. Then she realized how weird it might make him feel, to be friends with the teacher more than twice his age, especially with the Korean mentality about age and gender roles.

“The kids tougher than I am.” She said aloud.

Ye Lin stayed, too, but she was sleeping in the central office. That was where her desk was, and counter staff was encouraged not to become attached emotionally to the foreign workers, even in these strange circumstances. Clearly this strategy came from the Mr. Park school of management, which Kimberly was learning to hate.

It was almost midnight, and Kimberly still couldn’t get comfortable. It was quiet outside most of the time, and no cars were running, but occasionally there were groups of people shouting things in Korean. A few of them were wielding pipes and clubs, maybe drunk, and a few held torches. She saw old men with shaven heads and red bandanas, had no idea what they wanted or what they were screaming about. More than anything, she wished that she could call her parents. The last conversation they had was so mundane - Mom and Dad were both tired from a day on the road. She would give all the money in her wallet for five minutes on the phone.

Without the heater, it was getting cold. The large glass windows in her room did little to keep in the heat, and the only comfort she had was her coat, and the smaller child’s coat she took from the lost-and-found. Cold though it was, the stars were certainly beautiful. Who ever thought there would be so many? She checked her indiglo wristwatch - midnight exactly. I am now as far away from the sun as I can get without leaving the planet. She said, remembering something her nerdy brother had told her. Three minutes on the phone would also be worth the entire wad of bills in her purse.

Sarah had left earlier, walking back to her apartment for the night. She offered to bring back blankets, but Kimberly declined in hopes that she wouldn’t need them at the school. “Do you think we’re meeting tomorrow?” Sarah asked Kimberly, who was, after all, the head teacher. “Plan on it.” Sarah made a face like Mr. Park’s, and it became clear to Kimberly that she was giving a lot of wrong answers.

She finally got to sleep, but only that first layer of sleep, when the dreams you see are red outlines of blurry images, with faint voices, sound effects, or music. She felt something rushing towards her face and sat up with a jolt.

In darkness, she fumbled for the flashlight. The few seconds of incomprehension were wearing off, and she felt a sinking fear as her mind quickened. Suddenly terrified, she guided the circle of white light around the room and realized that Charlie’s desk was empty.

“If the sun was exploding, we’d have all been dead eight minutes after it happened.” Alex responded. He got the feeling that Nicholas was hoping that the sun would explode - and wondered how many other people felt that way.

A sliver of golden light slipped out above the eastern horizon. But, in regards to the sunrise, “it is rarely due east” Alex recalled from a survival book - one that he definitely should have taken with him everywhere, but only read in the bathroom of his house back in the United States. “Do you have a compass?” Alex asked the large, sulking Scotsman. There was nothing unusual about this sunrise, it was beautiful like the others, but people who were smart were afraid of them now - that’s what Woo-Jin said. “Nah.” Nicholas said, breathing heavily and leaning on a shovel. “Time to go downstairs, anyway.” He shrugged, and they left the garden with the last fresh vegetables they would see until April.

The quiet pop and low rumble of the war-torn city was a little more noticeable in the morning.Alex’s hands were damp with sweat - a deep, reverberating fear took hold of him when he wasn’t aware of his mind. He paid attention to every step out of the garden, walked in silence, and controlled his breathing.

As Nicholas and Alex approached the temple, they walked more closely together. On their way down the stairs, they passed Woo-Jin, who was carrying a box full of supplies. Seeing him was so rare - he had become a celebrity at the temple, since he was the only guy with any idea of what actually happened.

“Wot’s all tha’?” Nicholas asked, clearing his throat, which was not used to speaking. “Science experiment.” Woo-Jin replied. He looked at the load of vegetables, and picked up a carrot. “How do you call dang-geun in English?”

“Carrot.” Alex replied.

“Carrot.” Woo-Jin repeated. “Carrot.” He said, as if the word itself were the keystone for the arch he was constructing. His box didn’t seem to be holding much of a science experiment, more like neglected crap from his mom’s desk drawer. Used rolls of film, paper clips, some scraps of cardboard, scissors, duct tape, an old travel radio, etc.

“Are they safeta eat?” Nicholas asked, but there was no answer.

When they got to the basement, Alex opened the door for Nicholas, and added, “You gotta admit we’re pretty lucky to have a physics student from Seoul National University at the temple.”

Nicholas just shook his head. What’s the matter? Is it hard to think of luck, you fat dope? Alex thought bitterly, but admitted there was little to consider lucky. What we hate in others, we strengthen in ourselves. The Zen Master’s haunting sermon came to him immediately, and Alex felt the fire-slug of rage on the back of his neck shrivel and die, leaving a fresh and weightless feeling. Had he not also been the fat dope on many occasions? He tried to think of something helpful to say.

“Did you ever hear anything about EMPs?” Alex asked, remembering something Woo-Jin had struggled with earlier. As he turned to look at Nicholas, he realized that Nicholas was gone. Some grandmother had both of her hands on his basket of vegetables before he realized what was going on. “Hey!” He shouted. He felt his rage return, suddenly resurrected in a way that wasn’t fair - it took forever to kill, and only a mere second to return. The fact that he was angry again just pissed him off some more, but, remembering his breathing, he also felt the itch on his back, and he calmed himself after a few seconds. “Let the vegetables go, man.” Nicholas said. He would have to be hungry for another afternoon, thanks to this ... inspirational ... elderly woman.

“Charlie!” Kimberly cried into the darkness, quickly angry about how scared she sounded. She though she heard someone sniffling through tears, but couldn’t be sure. The school was creepy at night, and with only a flashlight, it might as well have been a morgue - or, more appropriately, a prison. A psychiatric ward? A weak smile came to her lips at the thought, but she knew she would never be able to translate it into a laughable joke for anyone else. It helped, though.

She passed the central office, and for another horrified moment thought she saw a dead woman at Ye Lin’s computer. She quieted herself and remembered that Ye Lin had stayed behind to keep up some kind of appearance that the school might have been run by professionals, which of course was a lie. And where was Mr. Park? Well, welcome to Korea. She thought, before thinking Who am I talking to?

She opened the door. “Ye Lin.” She said, timidly. She approached and gently shook Ye Lin’s shoulder, flashlight in hand. “Ye Lin.” She tried again.

Ye Lin sat up with a jolt, wiped some saliva from the edge of her mouth, and squinted through her glasses at Kimberly. Then she, too, remembered what was going on.

“What time is it?” Ye Lin asked. Kimberly looked at her indiglo watch again. 3:24 AM. “I can’t find Charlie.” She said. “His desk was empty.”

“He came here.” She said. “I think he liked the Korean’s face.” Ye Lin added, smiling.She clicked on her flashlight and revealed Charlie’s sleeping bulk behind the counter staff desk. What Ye Lin said probably held some truth - Kimberly tried to remember if she felt more comfortable around other white people at age 12. Then again, she grew up in Vancouver.

“What’s the latest?” Kimberly asked, sitting on the other side of the desk.

“I don’t know. No internet.” Ye Lin replied, but turned on the computer again in hopes that the same familiar Naver screen would greet her.

Outside, rumors spread quickly that the President had fled the city, setting up the new capital in the port city of Busan - a repeat of history, in which Seoul was left defenseless in the face of a North Korean attack.

Other rumors speculated that North Koreans had already taken the city, and that they were using Namsan Tower to begin broadcasting state television. But that didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t even radio anymore.

Even without internet, rumors traveled quickly in Korea. It was ingrained in the people themselves.

Kimberly wasn’t sure what was happening, but she knew one thing: there was no place in North Korea for a foreigner, and she wasn’t sure what the new sentiment of the South would be - even for an experienced aid worker with an EMT license.

She got the license in High School, under the insistence of her father, who was a firefighter. And now I’m the one putting out fires. She thought. Not really, though. Sometimes her mind slipped into the habit of making the impact of her life more dynamic. It was something she got from her dad.

He would want to be there with her, but she was glad he wasn’t.

What could he do? Utter some embarrassing words about protecting her, and...well, actually, he would do everything he could to get her out of the country. She had always felt surrounded by idiots, but never in the company of her father. He would have a plan. Just thinking of him was motivation enough to keep moving forward - or in a direction that felt like forward, anyway.

Outside, a group had approached the plaza across the street from the commercial building where the school rented space. She ran through her memory about things in the building that looters might want - no gun stores, no jewelry stores, no banks. There were a bunch of Hagwons, though, private schools like hers that convened after public school to torture students into late hours of the night. Attendance was a status symbol, and Koreans were very aware of their status. There was also a frozen yogurt place three floors down that Kimberly herself was thinking about looting. Maybe she could also slip into the DVD room and watch Die Hard.

Outside, a group of Koreans in red bandanas were huddled in a circle around a burning fire. The old woman at the street food cart was giving her food away to these people - something that didn’t seem to make any sense.

I don’t know what the hell those stupid things are supposed to mean. She had six floors to make a plan, if indeed they intended to do something at the school. Kimberly herself might partake if there were plans to destroy the Hagwons.

But God help you if you think you can take Charlie. Protecting him had given her something she hadn’t ever felt at the school: a sense of purpose. She looked toward the kitchen - thinking about a giant knife or anything else she could fight with. “I need to know what they’re saying, Ye Lin.” She said, walking around the counter to the teacher’s lounge. There were hardly any guns in Korea, except for those that the military men held. Men. And a few women who weren’t really taken seriously. “Uh...um...like bad words and other stuffs, but I can’t hear them.” Ye Lin explained, straining to listen. “I think we should lock the door.” She said something to Charlie in Korean, who drowsily joined Kimberly in the kitchen.

No knives in the kitchen - nothing useful or intimidating anyway. She took a fork in each hand, some salt packets, and one of the ice cream bars she had marked for herself when she put them in last week, when all she had to worry about was that stupid, annoying, fat republican man-child who kept eating her ice cream. She was slow to admit to herself that even his face would have been welcome in the darkness. Then again, he might eat Charlie. She thought with a smile.

It was a Tuesday, and Alex was in the middle of the first evening meditation, doing his best to think about nothing, but instead he was petrified with fear about what Mr. Park would do to him if he ever found out he’d gone AWOL - not that they were in anything as glorified as the military. He was supposed to be at work that day, but, quite frankly, he was sick of work, and he had no friends there. But what about my visa? He thought. His palms were sweaty, and his mind was creating plans for what he would do at work, if he had to return. Once Mr. Park got done killing him, Alex would have to give his parents a shot at it.

It took him a while to notice, but the refrigerator in the tea room had stopped humming, and even the clock in the other room stopped ticking, and Alex experienced a silence like never before. For about twenty-three seconds, his mind was completely quiet.

The meditation room was on the top floor of the Seoul Lotus Blossom Zen Center, the same four-story temple on the north end of Seoul. It was typically busy with weekend visitors, especially close to the Korean Holidays of Chuseok and Lunar New Year. Alex arrived during a slow week, and met Nicholas, with whom he shared a small room.

The Zen Center housed monks from across the world, though most of them did not talk to the weekend visitors. The religious practices were more intense than Alex was expecting - waking up at 3AM, sitting cross-legged until he thought his legs would tie their muscles into a knot under his skin, cleaning the bathroom, and long hours of doing nothing, many of which he spent looking forward to the next meal, which was always, always rice with vegetables. At first, he didn’t have much work to do, but after the sun melted (or whatever the hell really happened), he found himself teaching English, gardening, washing laundry, and ... a lot of digging, for whatever Woo-Jin had in mind.

Without milkshakes, candy bars, soda-pop, or even chewing gum, Alex’s stay at the temple was full of shaky detoxification and wild changes to his digestive system. In the beginning, Alex would find himself weak, fatigued, gassy, and emotionally unstable. But after only three days of his new diet, he realized just how much strength real food was able to give him - and Nicholas was grateful for quiet nights.

He learned to taste the sweetness of barley tea, the savory flavor of spinach, and for a while, even enjoyed the tongue-destroying bite of kimchi, as long as he had some rice to cool the waves intense flavor. Eventually, to his own disbelief, he found himself craving a meal of rice and vegetables. Nothing at the temple was wasted, so Alex learned quickly to take only what he could eat. Even the grains of rice that were left stuck to the inside of his plastic bowl were to be eaten, which the Zen master, Yong-Min, showed him to do. Ritualistically, after every meal, he poured tea into the bowl and drank whatever was left of his meal. The tea was naturally sweet to a tongue untainted by sweeteners, and Alex considered this part of his meal dessert - though, to be sure, months ago he would have wept at the prospect.

No longer craving unhealthy food, Alex indulged in unhealthy conversation. During the day, he talked to Nicholas about the beautiful Korean women who eluded him, the cheeseburgers that clearly didn’t, and speculated about what was happening to his apartment in the city, but those luxuries of thought were spread apart with seemingly endless hours of chanting and meditation. Yong-Min provided guidance for him, as he did for every student. Every morning, after the ritualistic, and sometimes excruciating 108 bows, asked each of his students a question that would guide them along their path to enlightenment - which Alex naively thought he could reach in a few weeks.

“D’ye knew what those enloiten’d guys actually do t’ themselves?” Nicholas asked, knocking down the pedestal of Alex’s delusion of grandeur. “I’ve heard of guys tearin’ their own erms off a’ the shoulder, breakin’ their kneecaps from sittin’ in one place, an’ eatin’ nothin’ for weeks, man. You’d have to be completely bonkers, I mean just out of yer moind.” He said, hitting the nail on the head. After that, Alex paid close attention to his knees and arms.

Up there on the fourth floor, it was just Alex and whatever his brain would offer him in the way of making the time pass faster, which it never did. Often his brain would create some ridiculous reenactment of a past encounter, glorifying Alex’s position and vilifying whoever he was at conflict with. He thought of perfect lines to deliver, but realized with sobering quickness that the day to deliver them might never come.

They had just heard from one of the new guests - a survivor of a massacre had taken place at Incheon International Airport, just a day or two after the electricity went out. It was some sick joke about humanity - people were killing each other to get on planes that no longer had the technology to leave the tarmac.

“Leaving may mean death,” Yong-Min, the Zen Master, explained to the group in his native tongue “But those who stay can expect to stay for life.” The stunned group sat or stood in a reverent circle around the monk, whose appearance remained youthful despite his age. A steady crop of tiny stubble grew all across his scalp, but the skin it grew from showed that it hadn’t held a full head of hair in a while.

“What did he say?” Alex asked Nicholas in a whisper.

“I don’t know.” Nicholas growled.

When the subway was still running, which seemed like millions of years ago, Nicholas had spent almost one million Won on two months of Korean lessons that taught him nothing he needed to know. He could use and understand a few phrases in the highest-formality tense, but nobody talked like that. Nobody except stupid, money-and-time-wasting foreigners.

Yong-Min struck a wooden box with his walking stick to get their silence. He continued in Korean “People are dying, but people have always been dying. Our mission here is the same. What we need to do is bring peace to this world! But, how can you bring peace, if you are not at peace?” He struck the wooden box again, and another intense moment of silence followed.

“What did he say?” Alex whispered to Nicholas again.

“He said there’s five lerge pepperoni pizzas in the cafetaeria, an’ Heart of Midlothian made League Champions this year.” Nicholas said quickly with his arms crossed.

Faint voices could be heard outside, and they were yelling something, though it was hard to tell what. Ye Lin, Charlie, and Kimberly took refuge in the dark kitchen, hoping and praying that the door in front of them wouldn’t open. To be found, the group would have to break through the two large safety-glass doors that had the school emblem engraved into them, open the door to the teacher’s lounge, move the misplaced bookshelf, and find the door that opened into the kitchen.

Kimberly held a fork in each hand, remembering what she could of the Tae-Kwon-Do classes she took in middle school. More likely than not, the people coming in through the door would know more about the Korean martial art than she did. But they didn’t have forks. She tried to feel safe, but Kimberly remembered just a few months ago when a student broke the door by trying to slam it in his friend’s face. A mere child.

She prepared herself for the worst when she heard the doors shatter. Someone was making a straight path to the kitchen itself - someone might actually be looking for her! Ye Lin held Charlie tighter, who, despite being talkative in class, had not said anything since dinnertime the previous evening.

The bookshelf groaned and screeched across the linoleum outside, and Kimberly thought she felt time slow down. The sound of her heartbeat seemed to block out any other percussion, but despite all of this, she waited for the crucial moment.

Tap - ta ta - tap - tap. She exhaled, and seemed to relax the world from her shoulders, dropping the forks, which she held tightly enough to leave marks on her hands. “Hey Mark.” She said shakily. Never did she think she would be so glad to see someone so incredibly stupid open the door.

“I think he’s comin’ around.” He heard Nicholas say in some dark hallway, and thought to respond, but couldn’t for some reason. When he opened his eyes, Alex found himself standing on a hill, barefoot in the grass. Way off in the distance, he was surrounded on one side by the Teton mountains, though he didn’t know how he knew they were the Tetons.

It was wonderfully overcast, and a cool, fresh wind was blowing. It must have rained recently, by the smell of things, and the squishy feel of wet grass and sod between his toes. It was wonderful to see things so clearly. It was as if his eyes suddenly had a higher resolution, and then he realized he wasn’t wearing glasses.

“Weird.” He thought. For some reason, he thought his glasses might be in his pocket, but when he reached into it, he found only a packet of carrot seeds, which he replaced, with an odd grin. Suddenly, he was wearing his familiar temple garb, and the spade was in his left hand.

He knelt at the hill’s apex and began to dig. Immediately, he felt naked. But as Alex continued, his hands were getting wet, and the sky got dark very quickly.

“...seeds of hatred...” Something evil whispered.

Alex stopped and looked around. He tried to stand, but for some reason, found that he had forgotten how.

“...out...”

Again, he paused. Nothing - but he didn’t look long. He was shivering now, and he wanted to finish so he could go inside. Finish doing what, he didn’t know.

He dug and dug, and his hands got dirtier and wetter. He began to cry, it was cold, and he was scared. And Mom was mad at him. The tears blurred his vision as the storm got worse, and wind began to blow so hard that his tears smeared sideways across his face, spreading across his face in itchy wet trails.

Still, he kept digging, though each shovel seemed to carry much more than wet soil. Lightning flashed, and Alex realized with horror that he was digging into blood. The hill was a tumor - in it were horrifying growths of teeth, hair, and even fingernails growing out of certain gore.

The hill itself was bleeding through the hole he had created. Blood was pooling into the hole he was digging, bubbling up out of it, and for some reason Alex had the urge to use his teeth. His spine tingled and he got the sinking fear that he was damaging his body beyond repair.

But he kept digging, and found, deep beneath the soil, a beating heart. He pulled at it, and felt an terrible, indescribable pain in his own chest. He pulled again - more misery. Even the thought of touching it with his dirty hands turned his spine to jelly, but he knew that it had to come out.

He took his spade, so wet at the hilt that he had a hard time holding it in the midst of the storm, and stabbed out the heart from the arteries (too many) that held it firmly into the ground. He stabbed and stabbed, and each time he felt it in himself. Never before had he felt such incredible pain for so long a time - despite the cold, he felt warm around his groin as his bladder relaxed.

The pain made him blind, and he screamed and stabbed, scraping some of the skin off of his own right hand in the fury of getting his heart out of the ground and he threw the spade far away, cursing at it, and actually bit the last damn artery, felt it like a small rubbery hose in his mouth and chewed it loose! But it was loose! It was loose and it was his, and he got it out, and he got it out and it was over, and he held it, he squeezed it, he wanted to crush it for bringing so much pain to him.

He screamed again, crying, and something hit him across the face.

In the temple, he had held a firm grip on Nicholas’s clutched fish - in his right hand, where, just seconds ago, he held his own dying heart. He let go and saw that Nicholas’s face was bleeding from a small cut on the chin, and one of his eyes was rapidly blackening.

“What...?” Alex asked weakly - realizing that his throat was raw from screaming.

“Jesus Christ.” Nicholas whispered softly, asking for guidance. “I think yer possessed, man.” Nicholas sat against the wall, breathing heavily out of fear.

Yong-Min was also in the room, looking over the both of them, always with that walking stick. Yong-Min took a deep, long look at the two of them. Nicholas was the first to respond. With the twinkle of a tear, Nicholas asked “D’ye ever see anythin’ like tha’ before?”

“Yes.” Was the monk’s response.

Nicholas and Alex looked at each other - the sounds of the real world were coming back to him - the flicker of the torch that illuminated the fourth floor, the people scuttling around, talking, or crying, and even the ticking of the clock, for which they had found a new battery.

A long stretch of silence followed, which was abruptly cut off with Yong-Min cleared his throat.

“Okay.” Said the monk, standing with his walking stick.

“We can stop wasting time now.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before you broke the door into pieces?” Kimberly asked.

“Are you kidding? We shouted and shouted ‘Kimberly! Kimberly!’ But there was no answer.” Mark replied. “We didn’t know if you were being held hostage or anything.”

By who? She thought. Mr. Park? Then again, that wasn’t the craziest idea in the world...

They all sat in the central office, burning a few old tests and quizzes in the middle of the floor for illumination - even a few textbooks, which Kimberly was happy to see go. The windows were all open, under Kimberly’s insistence. It was incredible how stupid people could be sometimes. Stupid though they were, she was happy to see Mark, Sarah, Ben, Bruce, Colin, Alice, and a few other foreigners that she didn’t recognize.

The Koreans outside, the ones with red bandanas, had dispersed to a different part of the city. The food truck lady was also gone, but the truck was still there - immobile.

Ye Lin had left to take Charlie home herself, once she found out that Kimberly would no longer be alone. The day was full of bad plans, and letting Ye Lin leave with a child (granted, a 12-year-old) was somewhere among them, but Kimberly needed to address the group, and they needed some kind of leadership.

“We stick together, or we die alone.” Said Ben, who was clearly enjoying the severity of the situation a little too much.

“Here’s what we know: the blackout has taken a hold of the city for almost twelve hours now. My boyfriend, who’s in the army by the way,” Said Sarah, losing her place in the sentence. She was thinking about him. “Is...uh...he’s on his way North, but to do what I don’t know. Maybe they’re just holding out, I don’t think either side has wanted a real fight in years. He couldn’t tell me exactly where he was going or anything, but let’s all pray for a second about him and everyone up there.”

Normally Kimberly would have gagged at the line, but she allowed it under the circumstances.

“How long would it take to get to the airport?” Asked Alice. Being here was hard for her, even before the afternoon. She came to teach English in Korea with her boyfriend of seven years, and he broke up with her and was now teaching at some other Hagwon across the street, perhaps even dating a Korean woman. “I just want to get home.”

“Without cars, it’s hard to say.” Offered Bruce, tilting his head to the side the way strong basketball players do when thinking. “I mean, we could spend all night walking there and get there tomorrow, maybe. Doesn’t look like any cars are running.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Asked Colin, an edgy blonde who looked at the world through Rasputin eyes. “I mean, how are we all sure that it’s even safe to be outside? What could do something like this?”

“And if cars aren’t running,” Offered Kimberly. “What makes you think airplanes would be?”

The question seemed to quiet the room. Nobody wanted their bubble of hope to be popped.

“Well we have to try something!” Alice said defensively.

“Count me out.” Kimberly said dryly. She had a bad feeling about this group, like when she was just a teenager and she got into that college party she should have been miles away from. Miles away. Idiocy could be terribly dangerous.

“Kimberly, with all due respect, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard all night.” Said Ben, always trying to be the leader he was never smart enough to be. Kimberly was no fool - there was no ‘due respect’ in that sentence.

“All I’m saying is that I, personally, have always wanted an opportunity to do real good for the world, rather than getting some screenwriting degree and writing about people who make a difference, Ben. If you want to go home, I support that, but I have an EMT license and I plan on using it to help who I can. I would encourage anyone who has real survival skills to also consider staying.”

There was a long moment of silence. Who did she think they were? The whole reason they had come to Korea to teach was, in part, due to their unemployability at home. Sure, there were good teachers among them, but few believed that what they did before the event made much of a positive difference in the world.

“You know what?” Asked Ben, offended that people might not be excited about his plan. “If that’s how it’s gonna be, that’s how it’s gonna be. I’m going to the airport, because I think that’s the best thing I can do with my time here.” Kimberly certainly agreed with that, but was disappointed to see the hurt look in Alice’s face. She was the keystone, and without her, she would certainly lose the group.

Alice mouthed a weak “sorry” to Kimberly, who tightened her lips and nodded curtly.

“Well, what about Alex?” Mark asked.

“What about Alex?” Kimberly replied, annoyed that anyone would be asking where he was. “For all we know, he started this.” But even Kimberly knew that he wasn’t capable.

“Look, whoever is here, is here.” Said Ben. “But we need to make a decision quick, ‘cuz,” He tilted his head in a way similar to Bruce. “City ain’t gonna wait.”

“I agree.” Said Kimberly. She began to make a list of supplies she would need to survive in the urban jungle. “Don’t all wait around for me to change my mind about this.”

The group looked to Ben, who was already nervous and agitated about being a leader. His plan to take over only made it this far, apparently.

“You can follow the Han river downstream for most of the trek, and after that you should see signs for it.” Kimberly said. “Take food. And lots of water. Don’t drink from the Han.”

“Right.” Said Ben, trying to figure out a way to use what she said and make it sound like his idea.

Stop wasting your time. Kimberly thought. They had been in the office for hours, and she wondered if Ye Lin had safely delivered Charlie to his negligent mother. Was she home? It was impossible to tell what was going on. She hated cell phones, but missed their purpose.

In addition to the group’s nonsense, something inside her head felt incorrect. It was as if she was swimming, and realized that she had to swim down to reach the surface. Her balance was a little off, which was why she had to lean back on the counter periodically. She wondered if anyone else felt the same way, but didn’t want to worry them with additional questions, or look like less of a leader than Ben.

As the sunrise peeked over the skyscrapers, she saw a flock of birds in the familiar v-pattern, but something about it was strange. Never Eat Soggy Wheat she thought to herself, remembering that the sun rose in the east “but rarely due east” as her father once said.

“Do any of you have a compass?” She asked.

“I do.” Said Mark. Of course he did. He was a nerd who loved maps, but if anyone was going to actually get to the airport with Ben in charge, it was Mark.

He reached into his rucksack and pulled out an old green soviet-issue compass, the kind with a ruler etched into the collapsing metal casing.

He handed it to her without opening it himself, and when Kimberly did, she knew that something was completely wrong.

“Uh, we kind of need that for our trip.” Said Ben.

“I don’t think it will be much use.” Kimberly said. Mark furrowed his brow and took the compass back. The sun rarely rose due east, but in most parts of the world, especially Korea, it never raised due west.


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