The Long Way Home
Here's the first of my Year of Short Stories. This one was actually the result of one of my novels and a recent experience of walking my bike home. The setting is the Japanese Occupation of Korea during the 1920s.
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The Long Way Home
Parents should worry more about themselves then what their children may or may not be doing.
If parents worried more about themselves and less about their children Kyong-ae would not be walking along a dark road in the middle of nowhere, having to look over her shoulder every three steps.
Oh no, if parents worried about themselves, she wouldn't have to bother taking the long way home, but could have taken the short-cut even if it passed close beside the Japanese police barracks. Of course there were the stories of them raping Korean women and girls; taking them inside their prisons and beating them mercilessly. Not all the rumors were false, of course, but at least there were people!
The Japanese didn't cause that much trouble if no one knew she was there, but the long way - supposedly safe way home- took her through a long narrow pass where the land rose on either side of her.
Bandits and rapists could lurk beyond where she could see.
At least the other way there were lights to banish the darkness.
What was that?
Most likely a cat.
Maybe a dog.
Maybe it was a monster. What was it the Missionary O'Rourke called those monsters? Oh, right.
But, banshees were from Ireland where Missionary O'Rourke's grandparents came from. A banshee from Ireland surely couldn't have followed a couple to America and their grandson all the way to Korea. That would be absurd.
If it wasn't a banshee then what was it?
The bike creaked and jangled in a puddle.
It had to be the one time she wore her silk clothes. Now she would have to wash them because she wasn't paying attention.
Parents should mind their own business.
Swinging onto the bike, every stone could be felt.
The tire was flat.
Why did the tire have to be flat? Couldn't it have waited until morning? It was bad enough she had to walk through this section because there were too many puddles to navigate under a moonless sky. A flat tire?! Surely the gods did not smile upon her.
Rattling reeds clattered in the sudden breeze.
Something felt ... Off.
The river wasn't far away, and the marshy land where the two rivers met always reeked, but something else drifted along the wind. A sweet, irony smell as though a great deal of blood had been spilt.
Kyongdok, her good-for-nothing older brother, said the plains had once been the sight of a great battle, and that on certain nights, the blood of those slain could still be smelled. The sounds of their battles heard cracking on the wind.
A scream ripped through the air.
It took everything to keep the bike upright.
No; ghosts didn't exist. They were sent by the Devil to harm those who disobeyed the Heavenly Father. "Lord, keep me safe and protect me," Kyong-ae whispered.
The best thing to do was to turn around and take the short cut.
But, no. The tire was flat. Best to keep walking forward.
Why did the tire have to be flat tonight of all nights?!
The slick slice of steel cut through the air.
Guttural whimpering followed, yet the strange hypnotic voice reciting stranger words nearly drowned out the sobs of a grown man.
No. Nope, It wasn't going to happen. Whatever happened after this night - Lord willing she survived - the short cut was the only way she would go home; Japanese and parents be damned.
The bike hit another puddle, thankfully it was dry, but everything in her basket jangled.
"Damn," she grunted, using one of the words Kyongdok taught her because learning English was only disruptive if one learned bad words.
The voice stopped.
A light swayed closer.
No, nope. Not happening tonight.
"Whenever you are scared, run to the light," Missionary O'Rourke always said.
This was probably not what he had in mind when he said that, but tonight it was practical. At the base of the hill closest to the light, she would be hidden unless the voice came down. The embankment, thank the gods, was too steep for any mortal to descend at night.
The light swung high over her head, never coming close enough in its orb to even touch her metal hidden amidst the reeds.
The last jostle had knocked her handkerchief out of the basket, and there it lay like a flag in the middle of a puddle.
The light paused.
The voice grunted and the light faded.
Only her initials were on the handkerchief, and it wasn't important enough to save tonight. Maybe tomorrow.
Maybe the following day.
Probably should wait two days, and bring Kyongdok with her, just to be safe.
If in doubt, he could bring that revolver he kept hidden from their parents.
Possibly his friend in the resistance could come as well ... with his revolver. Shooting practice.
A final, gut-wrenching scream sliced the air.
The light remained in one place, dancing, until part of it separated and moved farther down the road.
Down towards the path she followed.
Was the light voice going to block her path?
It couldn't be walking back here, could it?
No. That would be absurd. Everyone knew light didn't double track.
No, the light would proceed forward and ...
Could it be coming back?
No. It stopped.
Ah, it guarded the end of the road where the pathway came back up.
Light might not backtrack, but Kyong-ae surely could.
The bike had a flat, though.
The gods did not like her.
She kicked the stand down and sank onto the grass. So long as the light remained at the end of the road, she would remain where she was.
The smell was overwhelming and her stomach churned.
Should she even attempt to see what was happening? It was her responsibility to help those ... What if there were more lights, though?
Looking won't hurt anyone.
Ah, but light voice was at the other end of the road. If she did have to get help, how could she get past it and manage to survive?
The light stood still.
The grass was wet.
Her silk dress! Water was horrible to silk, and now she had to clean even more. Looking wouldn't harm anyone.
Parents should learn to trust their fifteen-year-old daughter's common sense.
Even if she didn't.
The fire was in the center of a strange circle where three men slept naked. For some reason, each had a red cloth across his neck, as though a piece of cloth at their necks would cover their nudity.
Sometimes men could be strange.
Were they sleeping? Maybe it was some strange modern Japanese ritual.
Could be something from America. Missionary O'Rourke said there were strange people there.
They weren't white men, though.
Nope, definitely Korean ... Or maybe they were Japanese.
They looked Korean; probably Korean.
Shouldn't they be cold, though?
The light voice remained at the other end, and wouldn't be able to see her through the flame.
They could rape her, her mother's voice warned.
"They won't harm me," Kyong-ae assured herself.
How she knew they wouldn't harm her, she didn't know, but she knew.
The first man reeked and the red cloth wasn't fabric.
Back at her bike, the flat tire seemed to disappear and the road flattened.
Light voice had disappeared in the night.
Probably back to see what the earth-shattering scream had been.
For two long moments, the light danced along the ridge, the voice below it, as Kyong-ae pedaled towards freedom.
She skidded to a stop in front of her house and put the stand down. Inside, her parents slept. She left her things in her basket and ran back outside towards the police barracks.
There was a Korean there who went to church with her cousins. He was young, but seemed good. Surely he would listen to her. "Taewon," she gasped out to the first soldier she saw.
"Taewon?" The man scratched his head. He pointed inside.
Another soldier joined them. "Who's that?"
"One of his sisters, I guess," the first said.
Taewon was in his early twenties, cute in a strange gangly way. He sat at his desk with his head in his hands. "Taewon? You don't know me, but you know my cousin brother, Kyong-dong."
Taewon looked at her. "Kyong-dong's cousin sister?" He looked around, pushing away from the desk. "Did something happen to him?"
Kyong-ae shook her head and pointed towards the big light with the men clothed in their blood. "Bodies. Near the river. I think they've been murdered."
"Lieutenant?" Taewon called to a Japanese man in his early thirties. "Someone has reported seeing some dead bodies by the river."
The lieutenant looked over at them. "A girl? Is she reliable?"
"You wouldn't be asking that question if I was a boy, so why should you ask it if I am a girl?"
The lieutenant lifted an eyebrow. "Very well. Where are the bodies?"
"Near the river." A map. A map would help.
Taewon handed her his notebook and a pencil.
"I know where it ..."
"Lieutenant Yuguchi," their commander called. "Bodies found by the river."
"See," Kyong-ae insisted.
"Yes, Sir," Yuguchi answered. "We're on it." He looked at Kyong-ae, "Can you make it home alone?"
"Of course. I ran the whole way here by myself."
A smile tugged at the edge of Yuguchi's mouth. "Good woman. Off you go."
A woman was she? Of course she was. She had managed to bypass a strange light voice intent on murder, made it home alone and then to the station to tell the police. Of course she was a woman.
Maybe her parents would finally let her take the short cut home.