Featured Fiction

The Dying Light

By Jack Sutherland

 

If she was anything to me, she was music.

A soft, calming melody that you don’t realize is in the air until it has weaved itself into the fabric of you.

That song can never be heard again.

#

My daughter’s hand rested in mine as we walked the palace grounds. Yeri read the English sides of the information signs aloud and beamed when I complimented her.

Her mother only spoke Korean to her at home.

I knew that much.

Speaking English to our daughter would have involved acknowledging me.

I breathed in the scent of clipped grass as we passed an ornate meeting hall.

The place was silent, but for the soft voices of the people floating about like bees.

I looked along the low, thick walls that blocked out the tumult of the city outside.

It was incredible, how none of the noise got through.

Yeri’s hand was warm in mine.

‘Dad?’ she said, turning.

‘Mmm?’

‘When’s mom coming?’

‘Later, darling.’

Yeri looked at her feet and stayed silent.

I looked along the walls again and strove to hear the city.

I couldn’t.

It was a cocoon. We were in a cocoon.

And in a cocoon you got to become something else.

#

We went for dinner that night. It was one of those places where a performing chef dices everything up, then tosses it about and catches it in bowls as big tongues of flame lick up from the grill.

Yeri wasn’t watching though. She was fumbling with her napkin.

‘What if mom’s worried…’ she asked, still looking down.

I cleared my throat.

‘I told you. I arranged everything with your mom. We wanted to surprise you.’

Yeri turned, and held my eyes with a blank expression.

My heart sped up, and my head swam.

I seized the armrests of my chair to steady what felt like a rocking boat.

‘I can take you back to your mom whenever you want.’ I told Yeri, looking ahead.

‘No.’

Her hand came to rest on my arm, and when I looked down she was smiling at me.

I relaxed and breathed deep as the boat found even keel again.

#

When it happened, the whole thing played out like a scene from a film.

Perhaps that’s why I was so comfortable just spectating.

I like to think that’s why.

#

Yeri and I left the restaurant and turned out into the network of allies beyond.

We took a left, then a right, then I wanted a cigarette.

I let go of Yeri’s hand, and ducked into an alcove to shelter the lighter from the wind.

‘Dad…’ Yeri’s small voice rose up from behind me.

I shook my lighter and tried to spark a flame, but the thing wouldn’t catch.

‘Dad!’ Yeri said again, louder.

I turned, and the scene commenced.

A gray door in the wall had opened, and a woman floated up from inside, her eyes dreamy and her hands held aloft, as though about she were about to ascend.

But then she fell hard, and came to rest with lifeless eyes.

A Korean man in a pale blue business shirt emerged from behind her.

He would have looked almost ordinary, were it not for the Rorschach test of blood smeared across his shirt.

Yeri gave a scream that pierced the air, and the man’s face contorted for a moment, before he burst into motion.

His hand came up as he leaped over the body and ran at us.

That’s when I saw the knife.

‘No,’ was all I could say as I stepped in front of Yeri, and raised both hands.

There was no impact. All I felt was an odd pulsing in my stomach.

I looked down, to see the man’s knife sliding in and out of my midriff like butter.

I slunk down and clutched at the blood as it blossomed and leaped out of me.

The last thing I saw as the darkness encroached was Yeri backed up against the wall as the man advanced on her.

I slumped forward and all went black.

#

Inspector Bernie Kim exhaled heavily as he closed the manila folder.

He stood up from his desk, slipped his cigarettes from his breast pocket, and stepped out onto the balcony.

The dry winter wind cut at him as emerged, and looked down over central Seoul.

He took his phone from his jacket pocket and speed-dialed his wife.

Bernie checked their 10-year-old son had gotten home from school, confirmed that he was still to pick up dinner after work, and severed the call before his cigarette had burnt down.

The check-in was quick, but it was important nonetheless.

It was his way of taking stock after having read the case file he just had.

#

There is a moment after you awaken, when consciousness has set in, but memory is late arriving. In that fleeting second the mind regresses to a happier time, like a machine reverting to a pre-set.

Meanwhile, reality – the shrewdest of predators – lies in wait.

I awoke to a dull thudding in my head, and the smell of sterile medical equipment.

As the hospital room swam into focus, I craned my stiff neck from side to side, searching for… someone.

I stretched further, sure that whoever I sought was just at the edge of my peripheries.

But the room was empty.

Reality pounced, and then I was gasping for air.

As all around me machines burst to life with flashes and beeps.

Nurses flooded the room, and the machines beeped faster.

#

When I next awoke, a Korean man was standing next to the bed.

The man stepped closer, and studied my face.

‘My name is Bernie. I’m a police officer.’

I tried to talk, but could only utter a string of muffled grunts and gurgles around the feeding tube stuck down my throat.

‘Your daughter…?’ Bernie asked, guessing correctly.

I nodded.

Inspector Kim shook his head and looked down at his shoes.

‘I’m sorry…’

#

I was awake the next time Kim visited.

The tube had been removed, and I’d been gazing over the field of apartment buildings that rose up outside my window ever since.

Human filing cabinets – that’s all they were.

‘Where is he?’ I asked, not turning.

‘Your ex-wife wants you charged you with manslaughter.’ Kim reported, pulling a chair up and sitting down, ‘And in most countries – taking your kid without the caregiver’s knowledge like that – you’d be charged with that or worse.’

‘Where is he?’ I asked again, not engaging.

Kim continued, acting like I hadn’t spoken, ‘fortunately for you, Korean laws are still pretty patriarchal when it comes to this kind of thing.’

I turned to look Kim full in the face.

The police officer sighed.

‘He disappeared before we could catch up to him.’

I turned to look back out the window.

‘Do you believe that bad things happen to bad people?’ I asked him.

The inspector paused.

‘No,’ he said after a moment.

‘Didn’t think I did either…’ I said.

#

The Korean nurse came in every day to bring me a tray kimchi and steamed rice.

She was checking my tubes, when suddenly she stopped and looked at me seriously.

‘I am sad to hear your daughter,’ she said.

She smelled of sanitizer and decomposing petals.

‘But don’t worry,’ she continued, ‘Your girl in heaven now.’

She smiled and pointed up towards the roof.

After she left I stared hard at the ceiling she had indicated.

What they called heaven was just more life.

A continuation of the same unjust thing that had left my daughter dead in the street.

Utter, all-consuming darkness.

A complete severing of life in its every form.

That was the only heaven I wanted for Yeri.

I checked myself out of the hospital that day.

#

The scalding ball of pain in my stomach sought to drag me down as I walked.

The strings that connected me had been cut.

All that was left to me now was the slow descent, then the slump against earth.

When I looked up, I’d hit the ocean.

I looked out across the water, and wondered if Yeri was there, beneath the surface.

Maybe all I had to do was go under long enough, then I’d be with her again.

I looked up the beach, and saw dozens of starfish washed up on the sand.

The sun shimmered prettily off their pink and orange surfaces.

I picked one up, and gently tossed it back into the water.

The next starfish I picked up and stared hard at.

I held the creature up by two of its points and started to pull, gradually applying more force as the thick skin resisted.

Finally, the starfish split cleanly down the middle, revealing soft pink innards.

I let the two halves of the animal fall to the beach, then turned and left.

#

I stood at the mouth of the alley, and my midsection throbbed.

This was where I had killed her.

They had purged it – no blood, no police tape – no record of what had been taken away on this spot.

I went over to the door that the dead woman had fallen through, and pulled it open.

Just a nondescript little washroom, with a porcelain hole in the ground.

Hot bile was in my throat, and I began to breathe raggedly.

If it could all be reset so easily, then had she ever even been here at all?

I staggered out of the alley with my head spinning.

Then I stopped short, staring straight ahead.

I took a couple of steps back, and looked back up through the second-floor window of the restaurant I had just passed.

I blinked, and looked again.

But no, I wasn’t seeing things.

It was him.

He was just, there…

#

He sat at a low wooden table, a bowl of sea cucumbers and a bottle of soju in front of him.

I watched, stupefied as he bit a sea cucumber in half and chewed in circular motions.

I backed off, and concealed myself in a doorway where I could keep watching.

After a while he paid, and walked out of the restaurant.

Every muscle in my body was tensed as he emerged, not 10 paces from where I hid.

He turned, and walked straight past me and off along the street.

I stood, frozen, as I watched his back retreat away from me.

I wanted to go after him, but my body wouldn’t cooperate.

And as all of my inadequacies were gathered and erected in one towering monument before me, the man turned a corner, and was gone.

#

I was running circles in my head as I rang the buzzer for Kim’s apartment.

I told myself that I was not equipped to confront a killer.

I told myself I hadn’t just squandered our only chance to get the guy.

Kim was knotting his tie when he opened the apartment door.

‘What’s happened?’ Kim asked, his expression growing concerned.

He put a hand on my arm and led me inside to sit on a couch.

I told him.

His eyebrow was arched by the time I had finished.

‘Alright,’ Kim sighed, ‘let me get my jacket, then we can go get this all down officially.’

There was an edge of indulgence in his tone as he disappeared into the bedroom.

I stared into space.

Maybe Kim was right to be dubious. Maybe I’d just seen what I wanted to see…

But, no – that wasn’t it.

Because I hadn’t wanted to find him…

Seeing him brought me face to face with myself – and how I had killed her.

A jabbing pain rippled my midsection again, and I doubled over on the couch.

When I looked up, my gaze settled on the bundle that sat on a chair outside Kim’s bathroom, and on the metallic handle emerging from it.

I got up and walked over.

#

Kim called out when he heard his front door click closed.

He called again, then came back out into the living room and looked around.

As he looked, the empty chair outside the door caught his eye.

The chair where he always set down his gun-belt with his police issue revolver buckled into its holster.

He bent rapidly to peer under the chair, scanned the room quickly, then uttered a string of profanities as he flew at the door, yanked it open and rushed outside.

#

I looked down from the rooftop of Kim’s apartment building as the inspector burst out of the main door, looked both ways along the street, then set off at a sprint.

As I had thought, Kim expected me to make a run for it.

I unbuckled the holster on the gun belt, and pulled the revolver out.

The weapon was a dull silver with a black handle and a short barrel.

I hefted the weapon, then leaned back and pointed it straight up into the sky.

I pointed the gun vertically upwards with both hands, and wondered if the bullet would come ripping back down through the air to strike me.

#

I stalked the alleys for days, Kim’s revolver burning a hole in my pocket.

I knew this was one of the first places Kim would search for me, and so I stayed above street level, frequenting rooftops and terraces, buying single drinks and leaving them untouched.

And I was right, twice I saw Kim walking the alleys below, his eyes intent.

I needed to be here though.

I was in the killer’s mind now.

He felt untouchable.

And – like a lion returning to its kill – he’d be back.

I couldn’t stop – couldn’t sleep – and I began to black out on my feet.

I’d wake up somewhere different, with no recollection of how I’d gotten there.

#

I had just returned to my seat after another wild goose chase.

This was happening a lot.

I’d see a man walking away in the right kind of shirt, and his gait would snag in my memory.

I’d hurry out, then follow long enough to get ahead of the man, and look back.

But it was never him.

I went back into the dark bar, and sat with my head in my hands.

If I could be wrong so often now, what made me think I’d even seen him that day in the restaurant?

Maybe it was all part of the same hallucination…

That was when it happened, just like the last time.

I was gazing absent-mindedly out the window, and then he was just there.

He came right out of a brightly lit singing room with a Korean girl who was wearing the skimpy latex get-up that prostitutes in the area wore.

My heart thumped against my ribcage as I jerked to my feet.

The killer’s eyes lingered on the bar window, and I was worried he had seen me.

But then he was cooing in the woman’s ear and leading her off down the street with his hand in the small of her back.

I was out the door and after them in seconds, my heart beating so hard that the ground seemed to be shaking beneath me.

But this time, I pushed the fear down.

#

I followed them round the corner to a neon-shrouded love motel.

They passed under the rubber flaps in the parking lot, and went inside.

I waited a minute, then pushed the flaps aside and went in too.

I caught the proprietor on his way back to the reception, and stuck the revolver in his face. The man jerked in surprise, and stuck his hands up as he stared down the gun and began to babble in Korean.

‘Which room?’ I asked simply.

The man continued to babble, so I touched the barrel to his forehead.

‘Which room? I said again.

The man took me down the hallway and around a corner with his hands still up, then stopped in front of room 201.

He pointed at the room, and I stared the door down.

I didn’t want to go inside, but I was going anyway.

‘Open it,’ I said, jerking my head towards the door.

The guy touched a card to the door, and it clicked open.

I stepped inside, and heard the owner bolting off down the corridor behind me.

He would call the police, but that was fine.

I didn’t need long.

#

A man’s voice exclaimed as the door opened.

I rounded the opening door, to find him already upon me.

I lifted the gun and fired low.

The crash was fantastic in the small space, and the man fell, clutching a gaping tear through the edge of his thigh.

I watched as he winced and cried out in pain.

The face was different somehow, and I hesitated.

I blinked and shook my head, keeping the gun raised.

I looked again, closely.

It was him. Yeri’s killer.

The only difference was, now he wore the face of a victim.

The woman was screaming, and I nodded for her to leave as I pulled the handcuffs from Kim’s gun belt out of my pocket.

#

There were two pairs of cuffs.

I locked a wrist to each of the man’s ankles behind his back, so that he was in an awkward hog-tie, his back arched and his chest thrust out.

I pulled a chair up close to the bed where he lay staring up at me.

The revolver dangled from my hand.

I stared into the other man’s eyes.

They looked almost human.

But when I looked closely, the emptiness was still there.

‘You taught me something, you know…’ I murmured, searching his eyes.

The guy looked back silently.

I didn’t know if he understood, and I didn’t care.

‘You showed me,’ I continued, bringing the gun up, ‘that the worst thing a man can ever be confronted with,’ I rotated the gun in my hands, ‘is himself.’

The man’s eyes stretched wide as I stuck the gun in my own mouth, smiled around the barrel, then pulled the trigger.

#

I was adrift.

Floating on something.

Or in something.

A repetitive pounding assaulted my ears.

Suddenly, I was rising up through whatever I was floating in.

My lungs felt tight, then I broke the surface.

Light assaulted my eyes, and a prostrate figure on a bed came into focus.

My daughter’s killer.

I hadn’t done the job then.

I laughed, and blood spattered down onto my chest.

The man on the bed convulsed violently. I lifted my eyes slowly and looked into his face. His eyes bulged as he stared back at me incredulously.

I laughed again.

My face didn’t react when I laughed. It was like my jaw had come unhinged.

I struggled up onto my hands and knees, and blood dripped steadily from my chin as I crawled towards the bed.

I’d identified the source of the pounding now. It was coming from the door. There was shouting too.

Slowly, painfully, I reached the bed, where I slumped myself over the iron bedframe at the foot so that my face was as close as possible to that of the prostrate killer.

He was screaming now, and doing his best to squirm away.

A copious amount of blood spattered from my mouth onto the bedsheet as I laughed one more time.

I laughed in the face of bitter fate, which had brought this man and I together, then thrown the sum of our collective decisions down upon Yeri.

And the man bellowed and thrashed, and tried to get away.

My whole body was cold.

I was not afraid though.

I had reached the end – I was going to the darkness.

I looked up at the killer, who was hyperventilating as he stared down at me.

He was not escaping.

He was staying right here, to wallow in it.

The darkness encroached further, until the light was barely a pinprick.

And over the pounding at the door, her song played through my head one last time.

#

Inspector Kim winced as he came into the room.

A bound figure was thrashing on the bed, bellowing about demons risen from the dead, while another hung motionless over the foot of the bed.

The room was filled with cops cataloging the scene, but the frenzied man didn’t appear to have noticed them.

His eyes were squeezed shut as he thrashed and fought, and screamed his terror into the ceiling.

Kim’s eyes fell on the motionless figure slumped over the end of the bed. He went around, and knelt to look into the face.

It as he had feared.

His own service revolver just a few feet from the poor man, whom he had failed.

The face was crusted with dry blood, and the jaw appeared to have been displaced by the gunshot, but the father’s expression was clear as day.

Even in death, he wore a grim smirk.

As his lifeless eyes stared wrath into the crazed man thrashing on the bed opposite.

 

End

1484485059238Jack has been in Korea for the past three years, and enjoys rooting through the absurd to sift out the poignant.
‘Let me flip the world again and again, ’til all is obscene.
Until the sun is a hat to wear, and each breath is meaning.’
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