The stadium lights had all been extinguished, save a handful left on for the benefit of the cleanup crew. They were expected to arrive soon to begin the painstaking work of restoring the open field to its original condition prior to the evening’s concert.
Just hours ago, the arena had held tens of thousands of K-Pop crazed fans, thrashing and moving as if one giant being, pulsating to the heavy electronic beat, screaming and clamoring to get as near their idols as possible.
The only remnants of the frenzy that had been alive and kicking only hours earlier were scattered piles of trash. Occasionally there were items worthy of transfer to the lost and found or simply pocketing.
Once the items were removed that could be, the place would be hosed down, disinfected and dried in preparation for the next performance.
A smoky mist swirled and drifted around and through the beams of light coming from the spotlights high above. As a number of these smoky tendrils descended directly to the wreckage below them, they gracefully began to take form.
Eventually, when the purposeful smoke had settled, a group of assorted specters either sat, lay or paced in the center of the expansive grounds.
“Are we all here?”
“All except BoBae. I believe she is always the last to appear anywhere only to spite me!”
“Silence, woman!” barked the official-looking gentleman to her immediate left. He wore a military uniform, completely transparent, as was the rest of him.
“The war is over, Jagi.”
The military specter appeared indignant.
“Pyun, must you call me ‘honey’ in front of the civilians? How many more times before my authority is completely worn away by your babo gat-eun?”
“It is not silly business, you old goat! Your ‘authority’ has no footing here. Face it, Chin Hwa, the closest you can get to a rank is to be my Wangjanim.”
“We are too long in the tooth for me to be a prince!”
A loud gong sounded; everyone’s attention turned to DoYoon, the designated organizer of the meeting.
“We gather, per our agreement when our youngest family members began the endeavor we all witnessed this evening, and as we will continue to see them through until this . . . what is the word I search for, DaeSeong?”
DaeSeong manned the mallet that had banged the gong.
“It is a tour, DoYoon.” She drew out the English word into a laborious two syllables.”
“As we know . . .”
SSSSSFFFFFFTTTTT – POOF!
Pyun waved away the billowing smoke cascading from this new arrival with disgust.
“Here comes BoBae, that . . .”
“Soooooo sorry to be mi-an! I was occupied with other matters.”
“What is more important matter than our children’s children!” Pyun pounced. “We, their ancestors, are allowed a limited number of generations here on Earth. It is for our time here and now that we look over what is ours to guide and protect.”
“Careful, Cousin. Your rice is soon to boil over.”
The gong sounded.
DaeSeong raised her voice.
“All are in attendance. It is time to begin again.”
DoYoon bowed. “Welcome, one and all. We are familiar to one another, so without further delay, Jia has requested to speak. Jia? Please.”
“Yes. Good evening, gracious, honorable spirits. You know me. I am Jia. I, just yesterday, mortal time, was joined by my son, Joon, someone you all have seen perform. He gave me important news we need to hear about our children's children. I am hopeful we can prevent this next crisis.”
“Oh, Jia, I wish there had been a better way,” one of the women cried.
Jia bowed her head.
There appeared beside her a young man everyone recognized as Joon, the lead singer for the K-Pop Group StarPow. He had all the classic features of a Korean popstar, chiseled features, a voice to make the listener swoon, and he’d had a reputation on the earthly plane for hard work with no complaints.
He also had a slightly indented, crooked neck that would take time to straighten.
“Forgive my intrusion, Elders.”
“Joon, tell the others what you shared with me.”
Joon nodded, bowed to Jia and then to the assembled spirits. The bowing caused Joon’s head to tip slightly so that he had to manually adjust it to better balance on his shoulders.
“My mother, Jia, has told me you gather often to look after your sons who perform in the group K-Punch. I know them all; Kim, Chul, Hye, Eun, Iseul, Kyong and Kwan. Did you see any of their performance tonight?”
DoYoon spoke for the group.
“I believe I can safely say that most of us watch over these young ones during their travels and discuss ways we can assist when we deem it necessary, within our limits, of course.”
Joon looked surprised.
“There are limits?”
“Yes, Joon. You will learn what they are and how to best use what you have available. It’s a bit like mortal life but better defined and much cleaner.”
“Would you be kind enough to share with me your observations from this evening?”
“I am Haru. Kwan is my great grandson. I see he is exhausted. I set a chair nearby to catch him today and also help his footing on stage so he does not feel shame. I fear he will soon turn to stronger drugs. He now takes the caffeine pills.”
“I am Sena, Eun’s great grandmother. Eun has already moved from caffeine to a drug that keeps him alert for a long time. I fear what he will resort to next.”
“We see how these young people perform,” offered Cho, a great uncle to Chul. “How can they be expected to have the energy it takes to perform several shows a night flawlessly, time and again?”
DoYoon spoke directly to Joon.
“We have no one who knows how to protect our young men and women from the allure of this business of showing themselves.”
Joon smiled a sad smile.
“In the beginning, it’s always the same. The excitement, the energy, is intoxicating.”
Seok, great grandfather to Hye, grumbled. “What is so exciting about jumping about like monkeys to music that cannot be heard over the squeals of children who should be home in bed? A good year’s crop, now that is cause for celebration.”
“Oh, and if you consider a field of filth and smelly children intoxicating, you never had my homemade snake wine.” Min Jun, great grandfather of Kim, nudged Seok and the older toothless phantoms laughed together.”
“If you will allow, with respect, Seonbae, simple pleasures cannot compete with the lights, the adoration, the electricity that comes with fame. Nothing can match the energy from a stadium full of devoted fans all screaming for you, singing with you. And, also with great respect, Hyung, I have had snake wine, maybe not yours, but I prefer the girls.”
Most of the males present chuckled at this. The women frowned, shaking their heads. Jia spoke.
“Joon, you would not be here with us if it were all energy and girls. Please tell what you came to say.”
“I have a friend who is close with Iseul.”
“My Iseul?” Mi-Sun, Iseul’s great aunt, leaned forward.
“Yes, Noona, with respect. Iseul is like me. He hides well how depressed he is.”
Seok, the old apparition, waved his hand. “Nonsense. Hard work make you hungry; you eat. Hard work make you tired; you sleep. Go to school, go to work. What is to be sad about? You want trouble? Go to war! Then you see.”
“If I may, Seonbae, and with greatest respect, as good Koreans, we perform our military service, as mandated. We are not pampered in that way. Sadness can be your companion whether you wish it or not.”
Mi-Sun sounded a bit frantic as she cut in. “Please, can we speak of Iseul? What do you know, Joon? Please.”
“Of course, Noona. Forgive me. Iseul’s experience is very close to my own. When you begin, it is a joy. The work is to dance and to sing. When you perform before a large venue, more people than you have ever seen in your life, a sea of clapping, chanting, shouting for you, it is a drug that you will do anything to have again, no matter the cost.”
“And what of the Sasaengs? What cost is that to pay, to abandon your privacy and your safety and that of your family? Explain how that is to be reconciled.” Pyun shook her head. “Our great grandson, Kyong, has had clothing ripped away from him, his hair clipped in daylight and his home broken into twice! He was fortunate to be away both times, but is not something to be done before real tragedy occurs?”
Joon cast his eyes downward, then raised a hand to support his head.
“The Sasaeng are extreme. Their goal is to gain fame and recognition from their idols directly. This is most troublesome because the behavior is unpredictable and borders on psychotic.”
Pyun continued, “Are there ways to control this dangerous so-called fan base?”
Joon walked closer to where Pyun sat. He first paused to salute Chin Hwa.
“Sir. Good evening. Moving targets, Noona, that is what we are. We play a show, we sleep in a moving car, we play the next show. We are usually not in one place long enough to be harassed. When we go home, we never advertise it; though of course, there are leaks all the time.”
Mi-Sun looked frightened. “So, is there no solution?”
Joon went to Mi-Sun and knelt before her. He spoke earnestly.
“I wanted to warn you, perhaps prepare you, Noona, Iseul is thinking of taking his life tonight.”
“No, it’s too soon,” Mi-Sun’s eyes grew large.
“I wish to ask your forgiveness, Noona. Iseul knew of my suicide and it may be the reason he will attempt the same.”
BoBae jumped in.
“Why doesn’t he speak up? Why don’t they say something if they’re so unhappy?”
“Because,” Joon turned his head, using his hands, to face BoBae, “No one wants to hear it. Do you know how many others would give anything to have your life, to have what you have, to be you?”
“Everyone but you, apparently,” sniffed BoBae.
Pyun started to speak. Chin Hwa squeezed her arm, giving her a stern look. “Listen for a change, woman.” Then he softened and patted her hand.
Joon stood to face BoBae.
“Do you think all you have to do is walk away? There are contracts you would break. You think you can go back to the life you had before? That time stands still and waits for you to return from your fantastic, glamorous life and you can just pick up where you left off? No. There is no going back. Nothing in your world has really changed while you were away. But you have. So you become a stranger in your own life.”
Joon then turned back to Mi-Sun.
“The hardest part? Having no time. There is no time to think for yourself, to pause, to savor the pleasures or complain about the endless pace, the demands, the expectations on you to be perfect. Normal for you is gone. And there is loneliness."
Joon then caught Jia’s eye. He smiled, genuinely and sadly.
“In the end? I wanted my mother.”
Jia’s eyes filled with tears as she smiled back.
Mi-Sun was on her feet.
“So, about Iseul.”
* * *
Iseul sat in a plush white hotel chair. To his back was a wall of glass with the lights of Seoul flickering, mirroring the stars in the night sky. Before him was a large screen television as dark as the night reflected across from it. Iseul wasn’t aware of either; he was somewhere deep inside himself.
Just outside Iseul’s hotel room, three smoky beams came through the ceiling to the floor. They quickly formed into three ghostly figures, those of Mi-Sun, Haru and Joon.
Once they were completely assembled, Joon turned to Mi-Sun.
“Are you sure you want to do this? There is no guarantee that all will turn out the way we want. It could be very difficult.”
Mi-Sun touched Joon’s cheek with a tender hand.
“How old did you say you were? Jia must be very proud.”
Haru smiled. “Well, I never saw a poltergeist blush before.”
Joon smiled as Mi-Sun took back her hand, then asked, “Now, you’re sure we cannot be heard?”
Haru nodded. “Yes. I’ve managed to help Kwan more times than I care to admit. How he ever got famous with those two left feet is beyond me.”
Joon said, “I imagine it would take more energy than we have between us to be heard, but I am impressed that you can move articles.”
Haru shrugged. “I have extremely strong maternal instincts.”
Joon smiled. “We may need to test those instincts on a boy not your own. Think you will be able to work a miracle, if necessary?”
Haru looked at Mi-Sun. “They are all our children.”
The maternal specters bowed slightly to each other.
“Follow me, please, Noonas.”
One by one, the three flowed under the door and then around the hotel room, noting everything there, and then the bedroom, bathroom and closet. All took note of Iseul’s blank stare and apparent lethargy.
They rematerialized behind Iseul’s chair.
“All right. So we know where everything is. Now we . . .”
“Wait! He’s getting up.” Mi-Sun placed a hand on Joon’s arm.
They watched as Iseul rose from his chair. He walked to the liquor cabinet and stood staring at the assortment of beers, wines and spirits. He eventually settled on a bottle of Soju, removed the cap, and drank a good amount of the slightly sweet liquor.
The three specters exchanged worried glances.
When Iseul lowered the bottle, he grimaced as tears ran down his face. He then shuffled to the large panoramic window and stood looking, not seeing. His continuing tears obscured any likelihood of viewing what lay before him. He drank more.
“You know,” Mi-Sun’s eyes were fixed on her great nephew, calm and level, “I almost think it would be better if he left this place.”
Haru went to Mi-Sun’s side. Mi-Sun gestured.
“See how he suffers.”
Haru leaned to Mi-Sun and whispered, “Do not forget, my friend, at the end of hardship comes happiness.”
Mi-Sun looked at Haru and smiled weakly. “We will see.”
Joon spoke, “Look now.”
Iseul then went into the bedroom and sat on the side of the bed. He drank more Soju, then wiped his face with a shirtsleeve and belched loudly. He mumbled an automatic, “Jeogiyo.” His face broke into folds as he began to laugh, a roar that quickly eased back into tears.
He drank until the bottle was empty.
“Please don’t get more,” his great aunt pleaded.
“Don’t be surprised if he does,” warned Joon.
Iseul got up slowly and slightly staggered to the bathroom. He took a washcloth and wiped his face. He then ran water and soaked the cloth with it. With both hands, he just held it to his face. He bent over the sink on elbows and was still.
Haru spoke, “What’s he doing?”
Joon answered, “He’s deciding.”
Mi-Sun concentrated on her great nephew, sending messages just the two of them could hear; and he, only if he chose to listen.
Iseul stood up straight, turning off the water. He wrung and folded the washcloth and lay it on the side of the sink. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. He stared, searching, without expression, for several moments.
If specters had breath, all three would be holding theirs. Haru's eyes closed.
Music began playing from somewhere. It danced lightly on the periphery of the moment. It gradually became clearer as the notes and melody increased in volume and then grabbed hold of everyone’s consciousness at once.
“Answer it, Iseul,” Joon said slowly and deliberately.
Iseul turned his head toward the bedroom where his cellphone lay on the nightstand. It continued playing a familiar K-Pop tune called, “I Can’t Stop Me,” by TWICE.
Iseul's expression changed. His eyes watered and danced a little and he began to smile.
“Kwan, you freak.”
Iseul went to the bedroom, picked up his phone and immediately began talking.
“I told you I wanted that song out of my phone! How did you put it back in?
Aha. So, what you doing up, dawg?
Nah, neither can I.
All right. Give me a minute, I’ll be right there.”
Iseul went back to the bathroom, washed his face again. As he gathered his key card and phone from the nightstand, he took the empty bottle and held it in his hand, staring at it.
He placed it in a trash receptacle, then turned for a second as if expecting to see something, or someone. He grinned, shook his head slightly, and left.
Mi-Sun spoke to Haru. “So, the phone, that was your Kwan, was it?”
Haru smiled. “Yes, my Kwan. As much as a child can belong to you, he is mine. And yours.”
“I feel pride for them both.”
After a moment, Joon said, “I do not think we need watch him any more tonight.”
Mi-Sun hesitated. “I think I will remain a while longer.”
Joon looked at Mi-Sun.
“We have limits, Noona, I think you know. I’m learning it just now, but it is important to know what you can change and what you can't.”
“Yes, and it is also important to live in the world you are born into if you are to learn the lessons you are meant to learn.”
Haru cut in, “It seems I have stumbled upon a philosophy lecture and I was never a fan, much less Sasaeng. If you don’t mind, I will check on Kwan and then go back where I belong.”
At that, the three dissipated to go about their business and await the next event, confident it would not be far away.