Ever since North Korea began to demolish the US in World War 3, the general landscape of the country proved as brittle as the hope of its citizens nationwide. President Jeremy Laramie refused to concede and Florida, specifically Aketonka Bay where I’m from, has become a target of North Korean dictator Ji-Woo Hyeon-see. I am a musician who penned mushy love songs for commercials and films for ten years and my lucrative business was leveled in the latest attack by Ji-Woo’s forces.
These days, no one could give two shits about a musician, especially not one who writes love songs. Most have them have been hanged and quartered or forced into menial labor such as shoe-shining or cleaning toilets for North Korean soldiers. The slightest semblance of a musical note is punishable by death and thus, this opal-skinned piano before me hadn't been touched in a while.
I miss the way the keys ripple underneath my fingers. Despite the coarseness of my hands these days, I don’t doubt they would welcome me graciously back into their ranks. However, in the midst of this fallout shelter, everyone is aware of my effortless playing and singing and doesn’t find it difficult to picture me with severed fingers or a slit throat.
Someone catches me eyeing the piano and grunts. It’s my best friend Paul and he never passes up an opportunity to address something he feels someone could be doing wrong.
“You better not get any ideas in that head of yours, Lucas”, he gruffly declares. “You know good and well that Ji-Woo character isn’t against having a musician’s head on his mantle.”
He isn’t wrong there. Ji-Woo’s mantle is said to be decorated by the heads of every musician brave/foolish enough to play under his watchful eye with a bear’s head as the centerpiece. To put it bluntly, if I were to play, that’s where I’d stay.
I need the money though. Sure, I have assured safety but divvying up rations between me and twenty-three others can grow frustratingly tedious. Not to mention I’ve never been keen on the idea of sharing clothes with anyone my size.
“People are dying, Paul and I’ve been itching to play for a while now,'' I mutter, wiping my hand across the marble bench. “Besides, I need the freedom to buy what I want/need when I want/need it.”
He sighs and others within earshot judge me in silence. I’m not exactly the people’s choice when it comes to likable residents but in a world where music isn’t punished by death or joyless manual labor, I know I would be. That’s more than enough of a reason to play in the face of Ji-Woo’s warmongering. He motions for me to join him in a tight corridor away from prying eyes or nosy ears.
“You didn’t hear it from me but about 50 miles from here- if you’re willing to risk life and limb- there’s a young woman who’s rumored to be Ji-Woo’s girlfriend and she adores music. Eats that shit up, `` he comments half-laughing, half-attempting to suppress it.
Paul pauses after hearing light footsteps that I suddenly hear too and once they disappear, he leans into me as his voice hushes to an almost inaudible tone.
“Her name is Sang-ki and she’s unguarded in her room at the top of the Redroot Apartment complex across from Armadillo Stadium but the building itself is heavily guarded. She’s very much into the sappy, mushy stuff you used to write for money and she’s willing to pay a large sum because it’s forbidden.”
That’s more than enough incentive for me to risk decapitation or a life dedicated to pressing a soldier’s clothes. I squeeze Paul’s shoulder with my free hand and with my other, I push myself out of the tight corridor to sneak out to the Redroot Apartments. I know my talent won’t only benefit me but everyone else in the fallout shelter and the only person who seems to believe that remotely is Paul who must be concerned in equal measures with his belief in me.
I wait until nightfall to scurry out through the shadow of alleyways, the inside of a string of a few long-abandoned eateries and behind bombed cars to stumble onto the Redroot Apartments. I can see them in the distance or at least I can spot the building’s flickering neon sign, as well as a tiny number of soldiers, huddled in a circle in the front smoking bent cigarettes.
Luckily for me, I notice a pebble wedged between the crack of the piece of sidewalk before me and I’m able to wriggle it free. I toss it towards one of them and he saunters off to investigate the noise. The other two follow behind him when they realize he’s venturing off further than he should at night and I slip through the slight opening of the double doors.
The lobby covered almost exclusively in velvet splits into two ends of a spiral staircase leading to an elevator at the center and surprisingly enough, the concierge isn’t at the desk. Regardless, I sprint and nearly collapse upstairs to slide behind a conveniently placed floral covering draping over the middle of the center of the staircase when the soldiers return to their post. The chandelier shakes a little from my movement but it stills over time and I duck into the elevator which takes a sharp blandness unseen anywhere else in the building.
Once I’m on the top floor, I shift around the hallway humming a love song in the hopes that Sang-ki recognizes it and invites me inside. Sure enough, these wide double doors swing open revealing a robed slender young woman around my age humming the same tune. Most likely, it’s the slender young woman I’m searching for.
“How do you know that song?” Sang-ki grins bigger than the doors to her room.
I snicker and stand erect to meet her eyes. “I’ve heard a few tunes here and there.”
She shuts the door behind me soundlessly and swiftly to guide me around a kaleidoscopic room of records, watercolors, framed art, and a glossy black grand piano in a corner away from everything else.
“Play me something and I’ll pay you handsomely.”
Her voice is a bit sultry at the end of her statement but I try to pay it no mind. I’m here to refamiliarize myself with the love of my life; music.
I clear my throat and ask Sang-ki for water which she hands me in a metal canister. Once I gulp down the water, I approach the piano as if it’s got a bomb strapped beneath it. I press down on a key and I flinch in case it explodes but nothing happens aside from emitting a sound. I grace the bench which is actual marble instead of the plastered stuff I’m accustomed to at the fallout shelter.
When I begin to play, the world around me scatters away and a single light shines down on me. Nothing exists except the moment between me and this grand piano. I find solace in Paul but I don’t confide in him to the degree I do on these keys. Every negative and positive emotion is expressed to the piano and as soon as my voice opens up, I spill all my dirt.
The notes surround me and enrapture me the way no one else has ever done. There are people I have loved before who haven’t made me feel this free, this alive, this weightless and formless. I finish strongly coming down from this ecstasy and I can’t face Sang-ki until my fingers grind to a halt.
“That was beautiful… what did you say your name was again?”
She stares at me the way I stare at the piano and for the first time, I notice her eyes are a faded version of the velvet around the apartment lobby. I don’t get lost in them but they are gorgeous to witness.
“I’m Lucas, Lucas Sumpter.” I smile, assuring myself that it’s fine to do so in the absence of his grace, Ji-Woo the Horrible.
“Sang-ki Yoon, Ji-Woo’s girlfriend. We shouldn’t be here like this, Lucas.” She smiles which means her statement was less a warning and more of a possible invitation to return at some point soon to play more.
She opens her clutch and pats $500 in my palm.
“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate this at all.” Once I slide the money into one of my pockets, I match her smile because we both know I’ll return soon.
I break her gaze and head out the way I came in to tell Paul everything. Thankfully, he’s the only one awake at this hour to notice me at the main entrance.
“You came back and with all your fingers too. You two really must have hit it off.” He whispers, wringing his hands because he’s expecting money and when I slap the $500 in his hands, he does everything in his power not to yell and wake everyone up.
I focus on a white piece of paper jutting out of the cash and I wiggle it out to find her number on there in pen with a heart after her name. Paul and I laugh lightly and he shoves me waving the cash in my face.
I retire to my room and grip the number in my clammy hands. I’m going to play piano for Ji-Woo Hyeong-see’s girlfriend in exchange for money when it’s forbidden to do anything musical. The both of us can be murdered for engaging in music as much as we did. And yet, neither of us can deny the urge to hum, to sing, to feel the notes swell around us. I have to call her.
“I knew you’d call. Same place, same time tomorrow. You can be less inconspicuous.” Her voice is soothing and sure.
“And if I’m caught?” I ask, sure but not remotely soothing.
“You’re my cleaning boy in that case.” The smile is there but it’s a little guarded and understandably so.
“Tomorrow then.” And with that, I’ve got another eventful night ahead of me.
The residents have fresh clothes and food without knowing where it came from but I doubt they care so long as they have it in their possession. Paul and I nod at each other while outside, gunfire and bombing commences that scares almost all of us into a corner of the main entrance. Ji-Woo may never show his face but his iron presence is certainly felt.
I’ve been playing melodies in my head and eating sporadically before the cover of darkness can hide my footsteps again. With more food and entertainment than they know how to handle, the residents have been too distracted to notice me leave but Paul knows. I don’t know what I would do if he didn’t encourage me to go and have my back.
The same way through alleyways and abandoned eateries and such I traversed last night is the way I use tonight. This time, however, there are no guards at the post. Sang-ki must have set all this up ahead of time.
I make my way into the apartment building which feels more like a hotel and up to her room with ease. Maybe it’s too much ease but then again, I’m feeling a bit more confident. Through that confidence, I whistle another tune that Sang-ki somehow recognizes and opens the door humming it.
“Lucas, you’ve been expected.” She bites her lip once I enter and has a slice of strawberry shortcake for me on the counter near the piano.
“But that cake was not expected.” I reply in a singsong manner to which she laughs relieved but I’m not certain about what in particular.
I sit on the bench, loosen up my fingers and play the song her and I whistled and hummed together. Eventually, she joins me for a duet that meld our voices into one another. The words wrap themselves around us, words about two people who find each other in unfortunate situations- one in a troubling relationship and the other wanting to help but not being able to do much about it- and they sing for the sake of expression.
At the end of the song, I turn to the cake and watch it but refuse. Sang-ki notices this and curls the money into my hand.
“Sang-ki, I already ate before I came here.” I mention this without meeting her eyes.
“I had a feeling you might have but I made this cake for the first time today. At least try it.” She pleads long enough for me to turn around and take stock of her.
“Forgive me if this seems like more than the music. I swear I appreciate your talent and will continue to pay you what I owe you to hear it.” She shuffles towards and stares out of her window overlooking whatever of the city is left. “It’s lonely up here though and with Ji-Woo gone all the time warring and antagonizing, I have no one.”
Sang-ki whips around and whimpers nearly to tears until I dig my fork into the strawberry shortcake and have a piece. My eyes widen on trying the piece and I eat until I’m finished with the plate. She hops up and down and claps repeatedly like an ecstatic child. When I smile and rise from the bench to head through the double doors, her fingers catch mine.
“Please consider being my friend at least.”
Her eyes sparkle in mine and I’m reminded that she compensates me for playing after a dry spell for an extended period of time. The least I can do is grant her this tiny request or request since making friends with the girlfriend of a dictator is the furthest thing from tiny.
“Sure. I can do that.” I smile from ear to ear and she squeezes my fingers for a second before she releases them.
The next few days is like this, it’s me sneaking out at night to play for Sang-ki, trying out her newest dish and receiving money that I give to Paul. In addition to the strawberry shortcake, I’ve tasted: clam chowder, beef bulgogi, braised ribs, apple pie a la mode, cherry turnovers and spinach quiches. The clothes and food the other residents have received is in such abundance, I’m surprised none of Ji-Woo’s soldiers have caught any of them. And I’ve played love songs in a few different languages and of different types, most of them pleasant.
Today feels a bit different though. Today, I don’t see any sight of Paul and when I ask another resident, she shrugs. Now I’m pacing back and forth, searching high and low around here to uncover his whereabouts but he’s nowhere to be found. I’m concerned because what if Ji-Woo has him? I’ll ask Sang-ki if she has an idea of where he might be or if she knows him at all.
When I rush back to my room and dial her number, she picks up on my heavy breathing and hums a song I haven’t played yet. I want to thrash but I hum with her instead and instantly feel calmer.
“What’s wrong, Lucas?” Her genuine concern relieves a bit of tension I have right now.
“I have a friend named Paul and he went missing. Do you know anything about him or do you think Ji-Woo does?” I admit in a semi-tense manner, knowing though only slight tension is weighing on me, it feels almost crippling.
“I don’t know any Paul but why don’t you come over again tonight and we can talk about it? Or maybe I’ll come to you?” Sang-ki trails off because we both know the gravity of that suggestion but it could be safer for me if she comes here for a change.
“Alright. I can do that.” My voice catches and I hang up immediately.
I can’t eat with Paul missing and I can’t think about music either but I think about Sang-ki and the bond we’ve formed in the brief time we’ve known one another. It’s like this for hours with me replaying our laughter and dancing in my head. As nightfall comes, a blacked-out limousine pulls up in front of the fallout shelter and out comes Sang-ki dressed like she’s ready for a red carpet in the same velvet of her apartment lobby.
The residents peek from inside their square glass windows when they hear the clicking of heels and find her beside me at the opal-skinned piano in the main entrance. When I turn to them, they vanish instantly.
“About your friend Paul, was it?” Sang-ki starts, stuttering until one of my hands cover over hers and she gives me a weak smile. “While I was on the way here, I noticed a man slumped over some garbage in one of the alleys with a phone on his hip.”
I proceed to pant and shake as she attempts to calm me down but I shout. I shout and slam the keys before me in the most childish, immature way. All the residents pour out into the main hall and watch Sang-ki awkwardly try to comfort me. She removes her shades to wipe away some tears and when she raises them, she finds two armed soldiers in the reflection of the lens.
“Everyone run now!” She wraps her arms around me and as the residents scatter, bullets penetrate us and pierce everyone else.
As I gaze up through fading eyes, the soldiers enter flanked by a man in a pinstripe suit speaking Korean to his subordinates who nod and stack the fresh corpses onto one another. The man in the suit strolls over to Sang-ki and I and bends down.
“Paul was right. Sang-ki, you disappoint me.” Ji-Woo sings mockingly.