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Outbreak

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Soobin was screaming again.

He rolls his head back, curls his hands into tiny fists and brings them crashing down onto his desk. The other children look at you, their eyes wide with panic as his plaintive wailing reaches a fever pitch.

You close your eyes and exhale sharply through your nose. Whilst you can’t deny the eight-year-old has incredible range, you could do without the pitch-perfect recreation of your morning alarm.

To say you were wildly unprepared for the classroom was a gross understatement. Being a teacher had never been something you’d dreamt of considering - happy to coast along in your cushy publishing job, spending comfortable weekends eating brunch and renovating the small semi you’d co-purchased in a leafy London suburb. Then you’d found your fiancé in bed with your best friend, kick-starting a spate of rapid decision-making that had passed so quickly you could only comprehend the change in numerical terms. Sold one house. Quit one job. Deleted two phone numbers. Washed your hair for the first time in three weeks to make yourself presentable enough to ace one interview. Whittled your entire life into two suitcases. Booked one plane ticket. Landed in Seoul airport and missed two trains to Daegu before arriving in one tiny, run-down apartment a mere fifteen minutes from the school where you would work. All of this in the shortest - yet somehow, also the longest - six months you’d ever experienced in your life. Everything added up very neatly. But you still hadn’t come to terms with the events behind the numbers.

It wasn’t the children or the work that scared you the most, though.

You heard your co-teacher before you saw him - a hiss of breath through thinly-pursed lips that you were regrettably all-too-familiar with. The legs of his chair screeched across the polished floor as he unfolded himself from his seat and rapidly walked to your desk.

Despite yourself, you sneak a glance. He’s preternaturally handsome: slim, toned and athletic, with fine-boned, delicate features and a jaw so sharp it could cut glass. His jet-black hair falls prettily about his face, framing dark eyes that scan the classroom keenly. At his expression, the children immediately fall silent. You can’t blame them. One sharp look from him and you were putty in his hands. They respected him in a way you could only dream of, and he was so obviously the one in charge that it was frankly laughable that he was billed as your ‘assistant’.

“They keep crying,” he said, tapping his finger twice on the desk. “Children shouldn’t cry at school.”

You had no doubts that Jung Hoseok thought you were an absolutely terrible teacher. Could you blame him? You’d hate sharing a classroom with you too. The children wailed and cried every time you held a lesson. Made nervous by your lack of composure and over-explanation, your quiet voice failed to command their attention and he resented telling you to speak up.

After a month of your lesson plans, he’d dropped an entire semester’s worth of curriculum on your desk without a word. The implication was clear. They were created by the teacher you’d replaced - Susanne. You knew precisely three things about her. One: she was the sister-in-law of your cousin. Two: despite never having met her in person, all her Facebook profile pictures (or at least the ones you could see - you weren’t connected) showed her looking unreasonably beautiful and surrounded by friends. Three: you absolutely hated her. You hated her perfect lesson plans in elegant, looping cursive. You hated her habit of double-underlining titles and using cute, color-coded stickers. Most of all, though, you hated that she clearly was a much better teacher than you could ever dream of being - and that Hoseok had measured your performance against hers and found it wanting.

You shrink backward as he sweeps past you to the front of the classroom, his body brushing against your side in the cramped space. Soobin stops crying in an instant, and his large eyes widen almost comically. His lower lip wobbles and he whimpers at Hoseok’s stony expression. You don’t blame him. You have something in common, after all. Your co-teacher intimidates the shit out of you, too.

The little boy stammers something in Korean, and you’re quietly thankful that your linguistic ability isn’t as bad as your teaching. Whilst not being fluent, you’d thrown yourself into your studies once your placement had been confirmed, and had been pleasantly surprised on how much you’d picked up. Heartbreak was an excellent study aid.

Hoseok clears his throat. “English.”

Soobin nods and shuffles his feet. “Bathroom. Please?”

Hoseok turns towards you and points to the door. Wilting under his glare, you make an effort to smile as warmly as you can manage. Soobin ducks under your arm and gives you a cute grin. You watch him cutely waddle off in the direction of the boy’s washroom. If he wasn’t so damned noisy, you muse, he’d easily be your favorite pupil.

Hoseok breaks your reverie, reaching over you and curling his hand around your shoulder. He clicks the door firmly shut and steers you back in the direction of the desk, hand running softly down your side. You shiver. Despite yourself, you can’t help but feel hyper-aware of the close contact. The hairs on your neck prickle uncomfortably, and you hope he didn’t notice your reaction. You know he doesn’t mean anything by it, but you can’t help but notice how handsy he is. Why does he always sit behind you, anyway? It makes your back feel hot and clammy to think of him back there, like a wild animal waiting to pounce. Everything he does makes you feel nervous. Maybe that was the point.

The children are whispering to one another, concentration totally blown. They’d never learn anything if you kept getting distracted by your co-teacher. Susanne wouldn’t have these issues. You sigh and place your finger to your lips, arching your eyebrow with your most fearsome look. The class breaks into giggles - until Hoseok loudly clears his throat, startling you enough that you jump with fear. Feeling ruffled, you flop into your seat and press ‘play’. The television crackles into life. You’ll never be her biggest fan, but you quietly thank Susanne, patron saint of all things teaching, that today’s class was mostly reliant on video clips.

The chatter from the television drones on and you allow your thoughts to drift. Flexing your hands, you breathe deeply, imagining wisps of smoke billowing from your fingertips, taking all your worry and insecurity with it. At times like this, when you felt like you might snap in two your routine was everything. Trusting in your routine was the only thing you could do to keep going.

In the month before your contract began, you’d flown over early in an attempt to reset from the chaos of your personal life. The initial jet-lag had been replaced by all-consuming, jittery anxiety that you couldn’t shake. Resolving to shave down your pain into a fine point, you’d thrown yourself into a punishing fitness routine to take your mind off everything. Waking up at 5 am had felt severe, yet you quickly found exhaustion was preferable to the crushing pain of heartache. The newly-single, slimmed-down version of you grew to love the masochism, finding strength in a discipline you didn’t know you had. Sleeping in your running gear meant getting outside was just that little bit easier, and the early morning air was still cool enough that an hour’s jog still felt enjoyable. Besides, getting up early had its advantages…

You’d spotted the coffee shop on your second week of becoming the new you, conveniently located midway between your apartment and your school. The bright blue sign acted as your chequered flag, and you considered it a victory if you made it all the way there without stopping. One day, after a particularly taxing run, you’d collapsed onto the grass, unable to make it any further. The sweat had tumbled down your neck in the hazy morning sun, and you gasped rattling lungfuls of air whilst the muscles in your leg had started to twitch.

Your view was suddenly obscured. «Are you ok?»

A man wearing an apron emblazoned with a blue logo was hovering over your face, eyebrow cocked, his small mouth a line of solemn concern. You had to raise your hand over your eyes to see him properly. He had a sweet, round face and impassive eyes; you felt him scan your figure as he leaned forward and gave you his hand.

He spoke his native language slowly, so you could understand. «Get up. Do you need water?»

You shook your head, but allowed him to lead you into the building anyway. He had large hands and a firm grip.

His coffee shop was spartan but chic, with utilitarian concrete walls and exposed plumbing contrasted against the bright blue trim of the coffee machine. Dithering at the entrance, you watched whilst he ran the tap, his long fingers drumming on the sink. Catching your eye for a moment, he indicated towards a bar stool and set down the water. He’d put ice and a slice of lemon in it, which you thought was rather sweet. Hoping he might strike up a conversation, you stayed much longer than necessary - but he just nodded at you once you’d finished drinking and went back to work. By the time customers started to appear, it was time for you to leave. You didn’t even have a chance to thank him.

The next morning you found that waking up had been a little easier than usual. Styling your hair into a flattering plait rather than scraping it back, you’d set out on your route with a bounce to your step. Rounding the corner with increasing speed, the voice in your headphones had congratulated you on a personal best. Already flushed with exertion, you remembered the way he had grasped your hand in his and your cheeks burned. Would he talk to you today, instead? Was he just shy? Did you dare to be bold and ask for his number? The thought had made you feel guilty - although you didn’t need to be. You could talk to whomever you wanted, now. The thought sent adrenaline coursing through your body and sped you towards the home stretch.

By the time you’d gotten to the coffee shop, however, you had your answer. He had set out a glass of water on a little table outside. A clatter from the direction of the store pulls your attention - its owner is hauling a table outside, presumably for some outside seating as the weather gets warmer. For a moment you consider helping him - it looks heavy - before the glint of the water catches your eye once more. Why would he leave it here, of all places? Your heart began to sink. He’d probably seen you every morning, struggling to a halt just outside his store, red and pathetic and out of breath. The water was here because he felt sorry for you; pitied you, even. He certainly didn’t want to talk.

You felt a surge of disappointment, then shame. This wasn’t a meet-cute. The whole point of coming out here was to get away from these sorts of feelings, boxing them deep, deep down where they could no longer hurt you. You weren’t here to chase after another man. There was no point. They all lied to you in the end.

You’d grabbed the glass of water so harshly it slopped onto your hand, chugging it down in one and tossing it in the trash as you jogged the rest of the way home.

After that day, you’d tried to run fast enough that you’d beat him opening up. In three months, however, you’d never managed it. The glass of water was always waiting for you, no matter how quickly you’d run. At first, you resented seeing it there, but over time you learned to appreciate it, in a sadistic way. It served as good motivation - a reminder of how far you still had to go. One day, you’d be strong enough to run right past it and all the way home. One day, you wouldn’t need it. And in the meantime, you can’t say you didn’t appreciate watching the handsome owner set out his outdoor furniture every morning. You weren’t here to chase men, but you weren’t a monk, either.

The students worked diligently, pens scratching busily as the tick of the clock echoed around the room. You wondered how many of them, like you, were stuck in their own head, counting down the seconds to freedom. Hoseok shifted in his seat behind you. Was he as bored as you were? Was everyone here held ransom to your futility?

You thought of your husband. Ex-husband, now. He’d figured it out your uselessness way before you had. For all the time you’d been together, you’d worried too much, thought too hard and when it came down to it, couldn’t make the simplest of decisions - even when it came to your wedding. Which of your friends should be your maid of honor, and which of them would you piss off if they were not chosen. What flower arrangements would match the color scheme without looking tacky. Whether or not your mother deserved an invite. Paralyzed by fear, your prevarication over every facet of your life must have been exhausting for him to endure. No wonder he’d found someone else. When you’d discovered his infidelity you’d been utterly devastated, but the pain had been accompanied by a surprising sense of relief. Expedited by the wedding, the muddle of things playing on your mind had mounted and mounted until they felt truly impossible - a grand monument to your ineffectuality. With his betrayal, all of it had evaporated. The path ahead was crystal clear: escape and survive - at any cost.

But now, when you were as far away as you could possibly get, the fog of anxiety had started to cloud your vision once more. More choices lay ahead. This time, however, you had to make them alone. No wonder Hoseok saw right through you. You were as transparent and breakable as glass.

You started, roused from your reverie by a gentle brush on your shoulder. You knew it had to be Hoseok from the direction it came, but the way he had done it so carefully was surprising. It didn’t feel how you imagined he would touch you. How you would imagine he’d touch you was a train of thought that went places you weren’t expecting, and you didn’t miss his slightly quizzical look as you turned towards him, cheeks blazing.

“Soobin has been gone for a long time,“ he said, indicating the clock; “shall I go and bring him back?”

You were useless, useless teacher. You hadn’t even paid attention to the time that he’d left. Hoseok looks at you with a neutral expression that seems somewhat forced, placidly waiting for an answer. He was probably so used to your ineptitude that nothing surprised him any more. Steeling yourself, you take a deep breath.

“I’ll go fetch him. You watch the class.”

Hoseok raises his eyebrows but nods mutely, standing up to let you pass. Your hip brushes awkwardly against his thigh as you get up to leave, and you curse your general lack of balance as you hurry towards the boys bathroom. The fact that he was covering for your general uselessness on a daily basis was bad enough, but fawning over him would make you the very worst type of pathetic divorcée.

A little out of breath, you knock quietly on the door to the men’s bathroom.

“Soobin? Soobin! Are you there?”

You place your ear to the door, and can just make out a low whine in response. At least he wasn’t crying. You hope like hell he hadn’t made a mess of himself. Poor kid. He had to put up with you as a teacher. The least you could do is help him out.

You try again, this time in shaky Korean. «Soobin? It’s teacher Y/N. I’m going to come in now, OK?»

There’s no answer. Tentatively, you swing the door inwards.

The floor is pooled impossibly red, running in rivulets around the square, white tiles and spilling into the drain with a faint gurgle. Blood. It was blood. So much blood. A body - a teacher, you realize with a dizzy thump in your stomach - lies sprawled on the floor, staff lanyard clutched unnaturally tight in her prone hand. The window at the end of the long corridor is broken, as if some large animal had sprung through it. And underneath is Soobin, tiny and huddled over, whining strangely with his breath coming in puffy, erratic gasps.

Your fingers tingle as you reflexively grip the door handle. An uncomfortable white heat shoots upward, electric, through your body and to your throat as you draw in a shaky breath. At this, both Soobin and the teacher on the floor snap their heads in your direction. Blood bubbles through Soobin’s gritted teeth. The teacher snarls.

Nothing makes sense anymore. You whirl around and run, the bathroom door banging behind you and a skittering noise following as they leap from the floor in pursuit. The hot, white feeling centers in your temple, foggy and heavy, sending adrenaline coursing through your limbs. Hurtling through the corridor as fast as you can, they follow close behind, jaws snapping.

You crash into the classroom with a yelp and Hoseok leaps from his chair in horror. Then the world spins as a heavy weight bears you down, down, hurtling towards the floor with a smack. The female teacher screeches, huffing rotten breath into your ear, her hair sticking to your face in wet, sticky strands. Screaming, you flail your arms and scratch at the floor tiles to pull yourself loose. She hisses, opening her mouth so you can feel her teeth and wet tongue on your neck. You are certain that you are going to die.

The weight suddenly lifts. You’re free. You scramble under the desk, and turn to see Hoseok push the teacher up and out of the classroom with force. Everyone is screaming. From where you’re crouched, you see desks start to topple and children fall upon one another. Soobin is at the top of the tangled pile, and you watch, transfixed, as he sinks his teeth into the plump arm of a little girl. He pulls back with a flourish and the pink, torn flesh in his mouth showers blood across the handmade posters in the back of the room. She falls to the floor, limp and lifeless. What was her name? She sat near the front and she had a Hello Kitty pencil case. You can’t remember her name.

Then you were up. Someone - Hoseok - grabs your arm and yanks you towards the door. The girl’s head jerks upwards. She meets your eyes, bloodshot and yellow, and her mouth lolls open with a shriek as she lurches towards you.

You’re outside the classroom now, running down the corridor, your arm outstretched as Hoseok pulls you behind him. The teacher is chasing you. The children are chasing you. As you run, small, bloody faces appear at the classroom windows either side of you, pawing at the glass and howling. You wonder if this is what hell sounds like.

Hoseok forces you into the Teacher’s Room at the end of the corridor and holds it shut, leaning his entire body against it.

“Help me!” he roars, “Quickly!”

The door shakes and rattles violently on its hinges. Something is throwing itself against it from the other side. The bookshelf next to you looks heavy and like it might block the door, so you push it forward with all your strength. Elementary-grade textbooks tumble to the floor as the rattling gets louder - so loud that the door might fly from its hinges at any moment. Hoseok spins around, so his back flush against the door. He motions with his hands. To force the lock shut, he’s rolled his shoulder under the door handle, and he winces in pain as it digs into his collarbone.

Your hands won’t stop shaking as you pivot the shelf for him to catch. It falls, but you quickly realize you’ve misjudged the distance. Eyes widening, Hoseok lurches forward to grab it - but a hand snakes its way through the gap in the door, gripping his shirt so tightly the fabric pulls around his neck. He screams - a shrill, unnaturally high sound that curdles your blood. Everything slows down. If Hoseok dies, you’re next. You can’t let it get him, because then you’re going to die too. You don’t know how to stop it.

There’s a fireman’s axe to your right behind a thick layer of plexiglass. He sees it too, and he’s nodding frantically, his screams muted as the hand tightens its grip. As if moving through treacle, you bring your fist towards the alarm and time seems to slow down until you smash the glass. A piercing wail echoes around the hallways, and you dimly register that it must be the fire alarm. You’ve never heard it before.

Running to the door, Hoseok nimbly leaps out of the way as you swing the axe down in a trance - once, twice, three times. There’s a sickening crack, then a limb bounces to the floor and rolls out of view, covering Hoseok in blood. The thrumming in your ears lifts and you’re suddenly aware of a crescendo of noise. The alarm is just so loud, and you have no idea what to do next. So you stand in place, hands hanging limp at your side.

Hoseok turns the lock on the door and falls against it, panting heavily. You stare at the axe in your hand, which is coated in a sheen of thick, sticky blood. Whatever it was outside - the word ‘zombie’ feels too much to handle right now - whatever it was, is gone, for now. You hope it has gone far, far away.