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a promise out of sight

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It was the first snowfall of the year when the bombs dropped. The waves came soon after, flooding out foolish bomb survivors and sweeping the rock-smashed remains of dead bodies against rooftops and high-rise windows. The rains raised the floods and that’s when people began to really panic.

Some people jumped and just let their bodies sink to familiar roads. Some people stayed on the lower floors, watching the rain drops etch designs into the windows. Some people just found dry patches of wood to set on fire, waiting for the moment when the wet flames met the waters and fizzled out in tiny sparks.

There was one night when the city burned so bright that people danced on caving metal beams, delighted to know that they weren’t the only survivors. Even when the next night was colder, the darkness blanketing everything, the clouds hanging so low that they made the remaining survivors think that they could bottle heaven, it was nice to know that they weren’t alone.

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Keumjo keeps a mirror with her.

There’s a huge crack in the centre of it that distorts her face into placid phantoms. The cracked silhouettes that she can just about make out in the mirror bring her comfort during the long weeks when she hasn’t seen anyone else, when she doesn’t even remember what anything sounds like but the falling rain and the hum of her own weak voice being swallowed by the crashing waves.


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One time, she finds a patch of moss in between some wooden joists. The smell reminds her of freshly mown grass on violet hill during jangma.

She’d almost forgotten what the smell of earth was like.


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It takes a while for Keumjo to realise that she is over her old school. the rooftops get harder and harder to tell apart when the sun barely shines and everything is a distant offspring of the same shade of grey. The waters are murky and what she can make out between the swaying water is distorted in a way that makes her dizzy if she stares down for too long.

She was expecting to find the streets deserted, nothing but the concrete pavements and the warped frame of the school gates chained together. Instead, there is a traffic jam below her. Thick strips of peeling metal dancing away from the rotting frames of cars. Scraps of fabrics dissolved into tainted puddles of colour. Every time she squints to get a clearer picture, the waving metal and colours kaleidoscope into obscure patterns that have her leaning against the nearest hard surface, taking deep breaths in an attempt to stop her from throwing up and adding to the collecting patterns in the waters.

Laying on her back, she looks up into the clouds. It’s not raining today, but deities only know how long that will last. There’s a streak of bright white against a distant cloud - the sun trying to break free. It hurts her eyes enough that she has to look just beyond it in order to see it properly. It is as she is tricking her eyes to savour the short strip of light that she has seen in days that isn’t a fogged version of grey, that she notices there is a cloud darker than the rest, approaching the wisp of sunlight. It looks like a hand reaching to push the sun back in its place.

Keumjo remembers cloud watching. She remembers lying on hard-packed mud with Sojin and Sungah, picking out perceived patterns in the clouds.

She also remembers Seokjin and Hyemin coming by to kill their fun with cold, hard facts before the duo treated the other three to jajangmyeon, wowing them all with their ability to stay flawless while eating the messy noodles.

She wonders vaguely if any of her friends have survived. Or if they are all sitting somewhere around a table, their skeletal remains indistinguishable from each other without their flesh and facial features to differentiate them, their eyes picked clean by schools of passing fish.

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The rains sting. They always have, but today it seems especially spiteful as it pelts scars onto every slip of skin Keumjo accidentally reveals as she skirts the edges of ledges rapidly being consumed by the swelling waters.  

She barely manages to wiggle her way between the stiff crack of an office window before the winds pick up, sending a five-foot wave crashing sloppily against the ledge she was just standing on. Water drips over the radiator beneath the window, the white paint long ago chipped away from the rusting metal. She doesn’t bother with even trying to close the window. if the water level continues to rise, she can just seek refuge on a higher floor.

Emptied places that used to bustle with activity still manage to creep Keumjo out. There’s something about the quiet of a once busy area that unsettles her. Maybe it has to do with the fact that she can’t trick herself into thinking the absent people are merely sleeping a few streets over in their nice, warm beds. She thinks it has more to do with the fact that the pounding rain only echoes from the top of the building downwards, instead of surrounding every empty space, muffled by the high waters. Or the fact that it’s so quiet that she can hear herself breathe, every footfall and tiny bump booming into the silence.

Other than piles and piles of damp, scattered papers, there is nothing much in the offices. There is the smell of rotting papers, which hangs dank and heavy in the air, the scent so thick that Keumjo can taste it even without opening her mouth.

She reaches the door to the staircase and looks down. There is barely any space underneath the door, but what little space there is, is dry. She pushes the door open, as slowly and softly as the heavy metal allows. Even with how gentle she’s being, the creak of the door’s hinges is amplified in the dark, empty corridor and bricked stairwell.

When she has shut the door carefully behind her - she always keeps doors closed if she can help it - she leans against the banister to check out the depths below and her route upwards. There are emergency lights dimming above her, but not beneath, so there is a chance that even a few steps downwards will lead her straight to water.

Keumjo goes upwards.


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The smell of rotting papers is stronger on this level. The lights here also seem to be working a little bit too well for Keumjo’s comfort because even without squinting, she can make out the dark red letters smeared over several walls in large lowercase that reads:

a r e  y o u  h a p p y  n o w ? !



From where she can see, what she suspects is paint, is cracked and fading on the interrobang, but she has no desire to examine it closer and be proven wrong. She wonders idly if the person - the handwriting looks consistent - is still in the building. Or if this is something that was done in the early days but the lack of water in this area has kept it intact.

She regrets following the sign backwards because there is a dark stain underneath the ‘a’ and a distinct boot print that lets her know that what was used to write the remark was definitely not paint.

She liked it better - no, she felt safer when there was a chance it really was paint.


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Keumjo sometimes forgets that her whole world has stopped - more or less - since the bombs, and there are certain sounds that she should no longer be hearing. Sounds such as laughter fading out as it drifts over the rooftops, or multiple footsteps muffled over grass, splashing through murky puddles. And she definitely shouldn’t be seeing wisps of unnaturally bright red hair absconding into the shadows of corners.

She follows the flash of colour further down the corridor. She hasn’t seen another person in so long that she dismisses the sight as nothing more than the light playing tricks on her eyes.

The shadows of corners turns out to actually be an empty doorway into a dimly-lit room. From the small round tables, overturned chairs and gaping cupboards, this room appears to have been a communal dining area. It turns out that the huge double doors aren’t missing, they are merely propped open, the backs of them hooked onto thick chains that have been pulled taut, tied around large columns that descend from the ceiling and seem to go right down to the floor below.

Even though she knows it’s not possible, Keumjo looks around for any sign of the bright red hair that led her here. There’s noth-  Wait! There is!

There are mannequins strewn throughout the whole room. Some are laid on top of each other on the small, metal tables. Their arms are broken off and placed in an awkward criss-cross over the whole pile. Others are propped against the table legs with their heads detached, placed in a pile under the table and...  Is that blood trickling down the naked chest of one of the mannequins? Mannequins don’t bleed.

Keumjo steps further into the room. That’s when she notices the pile of clothes in the back corner of the room. It’s darker there, and there are mann-  No, bodies, still clothed, tucked away in the corner. Like Keumjo, their clothes are layered, dissolving in various places. Some also have sheets of plastic strapped tightly around their feet and up their calves for protection against the constant wetness, another feature that is similar to hers.

The blood here is a lot more obvious, pooling out over the carpet from the depths of the corner and tapering outwards towards the tables into faint marks. The smell hits her at the same time that she truly recognizes what she is seeing. Keumjo doesn’t always see what is right in front of her. her mind deletes the things that it thinks shouldn’t be in the room, and it takes her a while before the missing objects materialise in front of her. She claps her hands over her mouth to stifle her gags and reduce the smell.

This isn’t the work of a wake. Those vultures usually kill neat and eat their prey all the way down to the bone while the body is still warm because these days it’s a lot harder to build fires. These kills, on the other hand, are messy. There are multiple gunshot wounds on some of the bodies. Pieces of arms are shredded off due to close-range gun shots, indicated by the burn marks on the parts of the arms that are still intact. There are long, bloody ropes of intestines yanked through gaping necks, drooping over the frayed edge like wilting leaves. There are even shards of bone embedded into the rotting brain tissue splattered behind the tables. No, this definitely isn’t the work of a wake. Whoever did this, did it for fun, not survival.

Through the constant phantom hum of her ears, Keumjo hears something echoing towards her. The sound is faint at first and it takes a second for her to figure out that it is the sound of footsteps rushing towards her. She doesn’t risk the chance that she’s having an auditory hallucination. She works quickly, crouching down and scooping up the bloody mess of brain matter in front of her. She almost drops the squishy tissue when the warmth blooms through her fists. So, this was a recent massacre.

As she wipes the soft coils of brain around her face, over her clothes, into her hands and on random parts of her arms, she wonders how many minutes or hours away she was from being another mistaken mannequin in this abandoned building.

Camouflage over, she drawls towards the dark corner with the clothed bodies and more recent kills. She moves away the top body and lets out a small gasp. Eyes staring blankly ahead, her head lolling to the side, and blood matted to her hair is Sungah. Keumjo feels the telltale prick of her eyes tearing up. It takes a second, but she fights back her tears. She has cried to herself many times over the years since the first bombs fell, but now isn’t the time for that. She blinks rapidly, leans backwards and shakes her head. She still has work to do if she wants to avoid Sungah’s fate.

She lifts Sungah up and doesn’t look at the rest of the bodies as she buries herself in the middle of the pile, pulling the discarded back on top of her as much as she can. she goes limp, taking painfully slow, careful breaths, trying to disturb her hideout as little as possible. She squints her eyes until they are practically closed, just in time to see boots as they go clanging from the corridor to thudding on the carpet. Another pair of boots follow quickly behind the first. While she can only make out two of them, she doesn’t doubt that there are more of them lingering around the building.

They move further into the room, talking fast in faint, harsh whispers. It sounds like it might be an argument, but they are speaking too low for Keumjo to hear what they’re saying, and her heart is beating way too loud.

They leave without checking the room, without seeming to see much of anything. As soon as their footsteps have faded back down the corridor, Keumjo pushes herself out from beneath the bodies and dashes out the room. She slows to a careful walk as she nears the door that leads to the staircase.

After cautiously opening the door, she wedges her own plastic covered boots in the space between so the door remains open. Taking out her mirror, she examines her face while there is still enough light. Every attempt to remove the blood merely smears it further into her skin. Just as she writes the effort off as futile, lowering her mirror to return it, she catches a glimpse of a boy between the cracks.

He looks way too young to have such grey hair, and his smile is all wrong. He tilts his head back and lets out a laugh - a loud, short guffaw. A girl appears at the end of the sound, her hair an unnatural shade of bright red. Even in the distance, her stare sends a shiver through Keumjo’s body.

Keumjo stuffs the mirror back into her clothes and throws her shoulder against the partially opened door. She shoves it wide enough for her to escape between the short yawn before the door slams shut again. She jogs down the stairs as quickly as she can, but even that doesn’t seem to be quick enough because she soon feels a sharp tug backwards when she’s half-way down the flight of stairs. It’s the old boy.

His grip is tight around her raincoat, stretching the material and anchoring Keumjo. She shakes her whole body wildly, violently slamming into the walls and banisters in an effort to loosen his grip as she inches forward. There is a soft crunch and the boy howls out in pain, stumbling backwards. Keumjo wastes no time ramming her back against him. His body flips over the banister, a piece of her raincoat going with him. One of his boots whacks into her chin as a parting gift. The sharp pain shoots through her jaw and she can taste blood between her teeth. He doesn’t scream when he goes down, but there are a series of thuds and a splash as Keumjo jumps down the remaining steps and yanks the door open onto the floor she entered the building from.

She is plunged back into a more comforting darkness. The sound of rain hitting the waters lulls her towards empty doorway of the office with the partially opened window.

She is half-way there when the girl with the red hair appears on the other end of the corridor. Keumjo’s head snaps towards the door she came from, and then back towards the girl. She must have doubled back and came down another set of stairs. Other than her bright red hair and cold expression, the girl looks relatively normal. That is, until she snarls and Keumjo can see that her teeth are dripping red and are all filed into sharp points. Teeth still bared, the girl lunges towards Keumjo, her arms outstretched and her nails just as sharp as her teeth.

Keumjo wastes a few seconds screaming, before reluctantly running towards the feral girl and her awaiting window exit. They reach the doorway at the same time. Keumjo pulls roughly at the girl’s long hair, as the girl swipes at Keumjo’s cheek, her nails tearing tracks down her face. Instead of letting her nails drag down and off Keumjo’s face, the girl grips Keumjo’s face, one nail dragging her mouth down and another digging deep in the soft space under her chin. With her new hold, the girl whacks Keumjo’s head against the door frame.

Once.

Twice.

Keumjo starts wrapping the girl’s hair around her hand like a bandage. The girl lifts Keumjo’s head further away for a particularly nasty blow, and Keumjo takes those seconds between the new distance and the door to yank back on the girl’s hair, throwing her whole body into the movement and snapping the girl’s head with a violent jerk. They fall to the ground together. The girl lands backwards onto her face, the force of their combined weight breaking the girl’s neck with a clear crunch.

Keumjo lies still for a few beats, dizzy from the blows and not willing to risk fainting if she gets up too soon. Her whole face is throbbing. She turns her head to the side, towards the window, so that she doesn’t swallow any more blood. The rain pounds against the glass, small waves lapping over the window ledge and cascading between the radiator pipes. Watching the erratic pulse of the water as it creeps towards her, Keumjo remembers that the old boy and girl with the bright red hair might not have been the only two in the building. They might have been accompanied by a whole hoard of other people just as vicious and bored enough to fight as they were. Spurred on by this thought, she groans and slowly gets up, shaking the long strands of bright red hair off her hand.

She makes her way to the window and pushes head-first through the opening. Her hands slip against the outside window ledge and she is submerged in the icy depths of the flood.


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The rains may sting, but the waters are soothing. There is a clarity to her sight when she is cocooned in the quiet of the waters than when her ears play tricks on her as she wobbles between window ledges.

She ignores the ache in her face and swims on.

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It stops raining the next day.

The day after, there is still no rain, but the skies are overcast.

On the third day, Keumjo wakes up to sunlight.

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The few remaining clouds are fanning out into thin wisps, stretching across the night sky in a barely-there veil. The moon is a tiny sliver that does little to improve the darkness, but there is a small star that pulses feebly just beneath it. After immeasurable months of grey and more grey in gradually darker hues, the pale light against the navy sky is as bright as a lighthouse beacon in heavy fog and just as welcome of a sight.
 
She carefully angles her cracked mirror so that the bright star is multiplied into a field of light.