Mounds of Those Who Are Dead and Reborn

by John Burgman

Miles Olsen focused on the large mounds of dirt through his camera and considered the countless bodies buried within them. Some of the burial mounds had flattened over centuries and been overtaken by weeds, while others had maintained their spherical shape and receded like earthen pimples on the sloping countryside. Miles had never associated death with such nature—such wilderness—although the dirt mounds and the greenery reminded him curiously of a night long ago when he had buried his son’s dog, Winston, in a mulchy corner of their backyard.

Miles took another snapshot of the mounds with his camera, being certain to get the stone Buddha statue in the frame this time. The statue startled Miles—it wasn’t the jovial, plump Buddha he had seen on tea labels and yoga billboards back home in Columbus, Ohio, rather a bony, demonic-looking version. The entire Buddhist graveyard, the dozens of burial mounds, in fact struck Miles as morbid, unpicturesque, and far from the best tourist destination in South Korea for his family. There were beaches nearby, Miles knew, and a sun-kissed beach was better suited for this international family vacation than this field of ancient, buried corpses. Sadly, however, the weather hadn’t cooperated and it was far too cold and soupy for beach-bumming. Visiting these burial mounds near the hotel was the bottom of the barrel, as far as options for familial outings were concerned.

Miles’ camera began to feel heavy around his neck. The South Korean guidebook that he had kept constantly tucked in his back pocket was bulky and uncomfortable against his rear-end. And with the thought of the guidebook came the reminder of page 68, Choreok Morae Haemyun—the Green Sand Beach. The guidebook said it was “one of the most vibrant yet unknown destinations in all of Asia,” which Miles also took to mean that it would impress his entire family immensely: His wife, Pam, could recline on a towel there, his son could attempt to surf the shining curves of the waves, his twin daughters could sculpt the green sand into elaborate castles, and Miles could enjoy the sheer satisfaction of having orchestrated it all. He had been told by the hotel manager that the Green Sand Beach was currently off-limits so that the algae and lichen could regenerate and fortify without human disturbance—another staggering blow to Miles’ family vacation plans. But such dissuasion from the hotel manager did little to squelch Miles’ substantial desire to see the green sand, to take the whole family there and relish the broad arc of emerald coastline.

Miles couldn’t even remember the last time he had taken a vacation. Traveling across the globe with his family had been something he’d wanted to do for years, and he had secretly saved portions of his paycheck for the better part of a decade to do so. He felt a responsibility to show his children other cultures of the world, a duty to expand their precious mental panoramas beyond just Midwest suburbia. It hadn’t occurred to him until his son started filling out college applications one evening that fall that time was running out—the window of opportunity for presenting the wide world to his children, seizing the malleability of their adolescence, was closing.

Miles felt a tinge of sadness with such thoughts, and as he tilted his head back in reflection, he heard his son’s voice calling his name from across the Buddhist burial mounds. Miles turned to see his 17-year-old son, Nicholas, standing slightly slanted, gaping at the countryside.

“Dad, look,” Nicholas said, pointing to something in the distance. Earlier that morning, Nicholas had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to join Miles on the hike through the Buddhist burial mounds. Nicholas had declared that he wanted to stay in the hotel room instead and play games on his phone. As a result, the fact that Nicholas had begrudgingly joined the hike after all, and was now pointing at something—actively engaged!—filled Miles with hope.

“What do you see?” Miles said, clutching his camera against his chest so it wouldn’t sway.

“Looks like a bar,” Nicholas said.

Miles squinted. The ridge they were standing on, which edged against the field of burial mounds on one side, sloped gently on the other side to a long swath of grass and yellow flowers. At the base of the ridge, about a quarter mile from where they stood, was a gray gravel road and a small building. There were spherical beer kegs lining the building’s back wall, and a few cars and motorbikes parked on the front lawn.  

“Huh,” Miles said, tracing the gray road with his eyes to see if it led to any other notable establishments.

“Weird place for a bar,” Nicholas said. He had picked up a tree branch and was now leaning on it like a staff. Miles found the gesture to be comfortingly childish.

“I can’t imagine that it gets a lot of business down there,” Miles said.

“Maybe people want to drink after they bury their dead here.”

Miles shook his head. “Nicholas, these burial mounds are much older than the bar—thousands of years.”

But Nicholas ignored Miles’ clarification, seemingly uninterested in the history of the mounds. “Maybe it’s a brothel,” Nicholas said, “or a drug house.”

“I don’t think so,” Miles said, wondering at what age his son’s precious mind had been sullied with such mature notions, absurd as they might be. “That stuff is all highly illegal in this country. South Korea has one of the lowest percentages of narcotic use in the entire world.” Miles recalled this from the guidebook.

Nicholas just shrugged and soon lost interest in the bar at the foot of the ridge. He had lost interest, as well, in the branch he was leaning on. He whacked it against a stone and smiled as it splintered into pieces.

Finishing their hike around the burial mounds, Miles and Nicholas cut through the woods on the thin footpath that led them back to their hotel. Nick darted up the stares; Miles lumbered slowly, dejected.

The entire South Korea vacation was supposed to happen for Miles’ family the previous summer—Miles’ company in Ohio was moving offices and subsequently giving all employees the entire month of June free to do as they pleased. Miles had tried to rally his family and bolster their enthusiasm for heading abroad then, but Nicholas had just enrolled in summer drum lessons at the YMCA, and the twins wanted to go horseback riding at the stables before the late-summer humidity would supposedly make the horses ornery. On top of that, the atmosphere of Miles’ marriage just wasn’t right for elaborate travel at the time. His wife, Pam, was frequently sullen after a miscarriage that spring, and it seemed like nothing Miles said or did ever helped alleviate the gloom. The worst part for Miles was his errant thought in bed one night that the miscarriage had been a blessing in disguise—perhaps it was best not to have to start from scratch with a new, unexpected infant. Such a thought, as harmless and fleeting as it had been, was inexcusable in Miles’ opinion; he felt wretched with guilt for many days after that. To Miles, it felt like his plan to take a trip as a way of bringing the family together only highlighted the seams at which they were fraying. 

He still loved his children immensely, despite their palpable growing and distancing from him. Pam, however, he was less certain about. He wanted to love her, and at times she still inspired in him a sense of purpose. But he also knew that marriages have a life-cycle of functionality, like a hard drive, and he couldn’t help but wonder if the mounting aggravations were signs of Pam pulling away and dissolving their relationship in permanence.

Miles entered the hotel room, which by this point in the vacation reeked of instant coffee and dirty socks. A paper flyer showing a sad-faced, elderly Korean woman had been slid under the hotel door where Miles now stood—one of countless such flyers since the family had checked into the hotel. Miles then looked up and saw his family lounged around the room, ignoring his arrival.

Pam was seated in the club chair, reading a paperback novel that had a pink and gold cover. “How would you rate the grave park?” She asked, briefly glancing around the edge of her book.

“It was fine,” Miles said.

“Nicholas said all the hills made his legs ache,” Pam said, reaching to an end table for a caramel. “He didn’t like all the walking.”

Miles shot a glance over to Nicholas, who was already tapping the screen of his smartphone. “Yeah, the walking sucked,” Nicholas said without looking up.

Miles sighed at the comment and crinkled the flyer of the elderly woman in his hand. “We got another one of these scam announcements under the door,” he said, removing the camera around his neck and plopping into an empty chair next to Pam. “Don’t they ever stop?”

The twins, who were lying on the bed they shared, had been noticeably still since Miles entered the hotel room. It was then that he noticed they were each wearing earbuds, comfortably tuned out to the world.

Miles uncrinkled the flyer and eyed it again. The elderly woman pictured had stringy gray hair, like a white mist seeping from the sides of her cap. The scam likely had to do with appearances, Miles thought, since clearly the lady’s unattractive face was meant to be the focal point. It saddened him to think about this low-budget flyer suckering in some old person to spend a lot of money on miracle cream or skin replenisher or age-defying toner or whatever it was that the woman’s shriveled image was promoting.

The twins sat up in bed and began peeling the wrapper from a tube of packed seaweed and rice. The snack looked suspiciously wax-like. One of the twins tore off an end of the tube and smelled it. Miles was content to see them actually trying a foreign food without his prompting.

“It tastes like throw-up” one of the twins said, wincing and spitting out a half-chewed ball.

“Why’d you buy it if you’re just going to waste it?” Miles scolded.

“I didn’t want to buy it,” one of the twins said. “But the vending machine didn’t have anything else that looked good.”

            Miles sat up from his chair, leaned over the bed, and took the remainder of the seaweed rice tube. He would eat it to prove a point. “Korean food is supposed to taste different from American food,” he said, pained by his daughters’ capitulation.

At that, his daughters tucked the earbuds back into their ears. Miles stared at the seaweed rice tube in his lap. He took a bite. It did taste wretched, but he imagined the distaste as a byproduct of its vulgar vending machine shelf life rather than a flawed recipe. He then took a long look at Pam, who was fully engrossed in her paperback. She did not notice him staring. Miles was aware that statistically most marriages nowadays end in divorce, and many of those that don’t fully crumble end up treading the brackish waters of misery until one spouse—or both—finally dies. Such prospects were depressing, but more aggravating was that Miles never even had an opportunity to reflect on his options. With his busy work schedule, he could never pause to realign the course of his marriage, and it was all starting to feel like too great a burden. One time while moving Nicholas’ drum set, Miles had discovered a joint tucked in a blanket inside the bass drum. Surprisingly, his first impulse was not to confront and scold Nicholas, but to smoke the joint himself; perhaps it would alleviate some of the hefty stress of marriage and the daily grind. So Miles lit it up, alone, in the garage one night after raking leaves. It ultimately made him feel weary and parched, and it didn’t bring upon any clarity. But stealing his son’s marijuana that time revealed an important truth to Miles: If left on his own, left to piece together a new life without Pam, Miles feared the unfamiliar man he might become.

“By the way, I had to throw away your toothbrush,” Pam said to Miles unexpectedly now. “The twins were putting on rouge in the bathroom and your brush fell into the toilet.”

Miles nodded. “I think I have an extra one in my travel kit.” He glanced at the twins, but they didn’t acknowledge him.

Miles slunk to the bathroom, deciding in his idleness to take a shower. He removed his clothes. As he waited for the water to heat up, he caught a glimpse of his own nakedness in the mirror above the sink and it surprised him. He had not shaved his face since the trip began and the dark whiskers that now crept along his jaw made him appear disheveled, even sinister. He took several deep breaths and watched his nude torso expand and compress but never lose its doughy contour. Still thinking about the photos he had taken earlier at the mounds, he imagined framing his own naked body in a camera viewfinder. He was suddenly brushed with appreciation of what it would represent in all its embarrassment: This was his body, his existence. He had little control over its progression or decline, just like he had little control over anything in the world beyond it.

He stepped into the shower and closed his eyes. The hot water felt prickly against his skin. He smeared a gelatinous handful of bodywash onto his shoulders, rubbed water over his eyes, and gazed down at his penis. For some reason, he was struck with the memory of the first time he and Pam had had sex—in the drab loft he rented above a movie theater during his senior year of college. Recollections of Pam being so much younger and tauter back then always stirred Miles now, and he eventually realized it was due to their unfamiliarity; the memories were of a version of Pam so carefree and still in possession of mystery that was long gone. For all intents and purposes, fantasizing about that youthful iteration of Pam was the equivalent of fantasizing about another woman entirely.

He and Pam still had sex from time to time, but it often felt startlingly concise and clinical. During their embrace, Miles would find his thoughts straying, drifting beyond Pam’s naked figure, and suddenly thoughts of other women’s bodies would come to him. He couldn’t help it and sometimes felt ashamed by the randomness, but he would anticipate these mental images as they materialized on the edges of his brain and then crept to the center: The plump lady who occasionally drove the twins home from craft club, the bony sorority type who worked at the gas station, the librarian who looked like a poet. At times Miles would even envision some of the meanest women he’d ever met causing him physical pain, envision them searing his naked body with a hot rod to accentuate his fragility. And when he and Pam would finish with the sex, the images of the other women would drain from his mind and he would feel hollowed out, lonely. 

Miles turned the shower dial to its hottest setting and tested how long he could withstand the scalding spray until ducking off to one side. It occurred to him then that the hotel bathroom—with these makeshift games and ruminations in the shower—had become his hiding place; he was retreating from his own family. This realization scared him. He turned off the shower, dried his body, and slid into his same set of hiking clothes. He strolled back into the room of his family and stood beside his son.

“Nicholas, how ‘bout we go check out that bar at the bottom of the ridge?”

In the corner, Pam tilted her head sharply to one side in bewilderment.

“Dad, are you serious?” Nicholas asked.

“You bet—let’s go now before I change my mind.”

“But I’m not old enough to drink,” Nicholas said. And Pam echoed, “He’s not old enough to drink.”

“You’re old enough in South Korea,” Miles said to his son, raising his eyebrows. “Let’s just not make a big deal out of it.”

Miles and Nicholas treaded through the field of burial mounds again and hiked down the steady ridge to the bar by the gray road. Miles entered the establishment first, to make sure that the place was suitable enough for his son and not rife with drunks. The place only had a single window, veiled by a black pirate flag faded to pencil-gray. A handful of other people were seated in dim booths with hiking packs and drink coolers. It seemed less like a bar and more like a clubhouse for vagabonds. At a refrigerator, a woman was inspecting a case of bottles that contained a milk-white liquid.

“What is that stuff?” Nicholas asked. “Looks like bone juice.” 

The woman caught Nicholas’ curious gaze, unscrewed one of the bottles and offered him a sip in a tiny bowl. “Makkoli,” the woman said, although Miles didn’t know what that meant. He nodded and took a sip after Nicholas. The drink was sweet and floral. Nicholas gulped down the rest and smiled. “So Dad, I’m allowed to get wasted in Korea?”

Miles ordered beers, then he and Nicholas plopped into a booth. In the corner beside their table, a dreadlocked man in a striped tank top was standing behind a girl, his arms wrapped around her waist as if performing a titillating variation of the Heimlich. The girl was laughing though—clearly not choking—and two other girls were looking on and grinning. The dreadlocked man kept touching the girl’s hips. He was instructing her on body mechanics. Then he said to her, “If you hit the ground, your spine will shoot up through your brain, and that would be bad.”

The girl’s smile drooped into a straight line.

The dreadlocked man chuckled. “I’m just joking. Don’t worry—you won’t hit the ground.”

“Dad, what are they talking about?” Nicholas asked.

Miles didn’t know.

“It’s the best way to see the world,” the dreadlocked man said to the girls. “It’s vertical enlightenment.” He stepped away from the girl’s waist and declared loudly that he had to go take a leak. Suddenly then the three girls slid into the booth with Miles and Nicholas—an unanticipated act of sociability that Miles figured must be par for the course in the clubhouse.
            The girl who had been receiving the instructions from the dreadlocked man had coffee-colored hair and high cheekbones that balled up under her eyes when she smiled. She said her name was Crystalina, and announced that she and the other girls were in the midst of cheat-death trip around the world.

Miles asked what a cheat-death trip was, and Crystalina pointed to one of the girls. “Ashley was almost killed three months ago. She got bitten by a dog and the bite got really infected. It’s called sepsis.”

In the corner seat of the booth, the girl—Ashley—was wearing a cumbersome blue fleece; she nodded and gritted her teeth. Miles thought she looked fine and healthy now, but wondered if such a large fleece was being worn to cover up the horrendous bite scar.

Crystalina explained that South Korea was the girls’ current respite before heading off to backpack sea cliffs in Japan.

Miles looked around the interior and spotted the dreadlocked man near the back wall, chatting up a new group of backpackers. All the other people in the bar seemed to be Westerners—young expats with tans and hair in various stages of disregard. When he noted this to Crystalina, she confirmed that the place was owned by a New Zealand couple and had a small hostel upstairs with bunks and mattresses for travelers passing through.

Nicholas seemed mesmerized by the explanation, by the whole impression. The grimy side of travel—drinking at seedy clubhouses, conversations with weird strangers—was steadily revealing itself to him. He got up from the booth with Ashley and the other girl, Brianna, to look at a smattering of old shoes curiously nailed to the wall. Miles stayed seated with Crystalina, ordered more beer, and told her that this was the first day Nicholas had smiled since arriving in South Korea. Miles then found himself thanking Crystalina, but he couldn’t specify why. “For being so friendly, I guess,” Miles said eventually.

            “Aw, you’re sweet,” Crystalina said, brushing her fingertips against Miles’ forearm. She told him that she had dropped out of a hotel management graduate program in Miami to travel, but was thinking about going back to school—she had recently discovered a curriculum that would entail living in a different hotel every week for an entire semester.

Such constant movement, plus the sterile monotony of hotel life, made the idea seem awful to Miles. He wanted to tell her that it sounded like a witness protection program. 

“After a single semester, I’ll be able to say I’ve basically lived everywhere,” Crystalina said, raising her glass for a toast. They each took a gulp of beer. There was a long pause then, during which Crystalina relaxed her head to one side and placed her hands flatly on the table. “Truth time,” she said. “Are you divorced or what?”

The question caught Miles off guard, the atmosphere of the bar so foreign from anything that would ever remind him of his wife.

            “Sorry,” Crystlina said. “Maybe that came across as too personal. I’m drunk. I just assumed I could ask since we were talking about life ambitions.” She took her hands off the table and placed them on her lap, ashamed. “You and your son seem close.”

It occurred to Miles why she was abruptly so flustered: She thought he was widowed. “No, it’s not too personal,” he said. “I have a wife, living, but she isn’t interested in bars like this.” Miles wished he had simply answered Crystalina’s question and changed the subject. Instead, he was caught fielding ensuing curiosities about which activities Pam liked and disliked. In a matter of moments, he had streamlined the whole disaster of his family’s vacation and the coldness of his marriage like a Crock-Pot recipe and presented it to Crystalina, who listened and nodded sympathetically.

“Oh my god, I can’t even imagine being married for that long,” she said. “Have you ever tried, like counseling?”

“I don’t know where we’d find the time or money for that,” Miles said.

Crystalina pursed her lips so they nearly disappeared inside her mouth. “Love is so tough,” she said. “It’s like that Bruno Mars song about cutting your hand with a blade. Do you know it?”

Miles had no idea what she was talking about, but felt his insides quiver at the mention of love in regards to his marriage. He and Pam had possessed many moments of rapture in the past—their honeymoon in the sun-doused Adirondacks, an anniversary cruise off the coast of Florida, their awe at having conceived identical twins—but it felt impossible that any future memories could be constructed with such warmth and wonder. He often questioned if there was any point in even trying to continue loving Pam. And Pam deserved some of the implication too. She was rarely in romantic moods anymore, and made no effort whatsoever to reach for him or ever tempt him with tantalizing locutions after the kids were asleep the way she used to.

“Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you hadn’t met your wife?” Crystalina asked.

“I think about it a lot,” Miles said. It wasn’t the truth, but the lie had just emerged from the nothingness of the moment, like a yawn.

Crystalina put an elbow on the table and rested her chin in her palm. “How would your life be different?”

“Maybe I would do something quirky like that guy from the in-flight magazine who ate McDonald’s on every continent.”

Crystalina laughed at this, showing a lot of teeth and creasing the corners of her mouth in a way that looked alarmingly Pam-like to Miles. “Well in that case,” she said, “maybe we still would have met up here for beer in South Korea somehow.”

Miles heard thumping coming from a distant end of the bar and angled his body to see the dreadlocked man climbing a chair. The man stood proudly, his thick brown snouts of hair swaying wildly, spread his arms like Christ, and then jumped off the chair. The dreadlocked man did this routine several times. There was a billowing nylon blanket draped over his bare shoulders. A small crowd of drinkers was watching him intently, and Miles noticed that one of the onlookers happened to be Nicholas.  

It dawned on Miles that the dreadlocked man was giving skydiving instructions. Miles wondered what compulsion would drive the dreadlocked man—or anyone—to hurl himself towards the earth so cavalierly.

Miles then glanced back at Crystalina, who had poured a shot of liquor for Miles. The drink left a charred trail down Miles’ esophagus as he drank it. He had to fight off a wave of light-headedness. Crystalina moved from her seat across the table and slid in beside Miles.

Miles could feel the warmth of Crystalina’s shoulder nudging against his. She smiled and poured another shot for each of them.

The crowd at the distant end of the bar started to clap enthusiastically as someone new stepped atop the mock-skydive chair. Miles was taken aback to see that it was Nicholas, wearing the nylon blanket—a loose parachute—messily around his skinny shoulders, and dutifully taking instructions from the rest of the crowd. When Nicholas jumped off the chair and the crowd cheered, Miles was struck with discomfort, as if this was bearing witness to his son’s tragic escape from the world, escape from all the family turmoil.

“I talked too much about myself,” Miles said to Crystalina after Nicholas took another steady leap from the chair. “How about you tell me about yourself. I’m assuming you’re not married.”

Crystalina looked off into the distance for a second, then scrunched her nose into a scribble of skin. “This will sound bonkers, but I actually was married for seven months, when I was 21 years old.”

“So what happened?”

“I fought all the time with the guy. He used to light things on fire when he’d get pissed at me. He burned my laptop in the kitchen sink once.”

“The mark of a healthy relationship,” Miles said.

“The guy could be a sweetheart sometimes though,” Crystalina said, glancing into the air at nothing in particular. “But I’m glad it’s over. Feels like a lifetime ago.”

During one of Miles’ most heated arguments with Pam, she had locked herself in the bedroom. The kids hadn’t been there to see it—Nicholas was at a drum lesson and the twins were at a pool party. Miles didn’t understand the reasoning behind Pam’s self-imposed barricading because he certainly wasn’t threatening her in any way, would never physically hurt her. But Pam had yelled through the locked door that she just couldn’t look at him without seeing the ruin in their marriage.

“So currently there are no fiancés or boyfriends or skydiving Casanovas in your life?” Miles asked.

            “None of the above,” Crystalina said. She raised her index finger and mimed a checkmark. When she lowered her hand, it rested beside Miles’ on the table, their skin touching delicately. Miles’ limbs felt enlivened, and such sudden energy startled him. He became anxious. Finding his son felt like the right thing to do. He looked over at the skydiving chair, but the crowd there had disbanded; Nicholas was nowhere to be seen. Miles pushed the beer bottles and empty shot glasses away and quickly stood from the booth. He was surprised to find himself woozy. He scanned the room expecting Nicholas to pop into view like a town on a map, but when Nicholas didn’t appear, Miles’ throat started to tighten. He paced in a small, frantic arc around the tables and loose chairs. As he turned at the wall of nailed shoes, he spotted a flash of color through the front door screen. There were a few people outside, smoking cigarettes on the front lawn near the gray road. They were laughing in a circle and exhaling their faint vapors of smoke over their shoulders. Miles didn’t recognize Nicholas among the bunch at first because of the abnormality of his son’s pose: Nicholas didn’t smoke cigarettes, and certainly wouldn’t do so with such openness. But yes, it was clearly his son—clearly puffing on a cigarette. Miles realized that the man standing next to Nicholas, also smoking, was the dreadlocked man.

Miles felt enraged, abandoned by such defiance.

Miles scrambled through the grid of tables, drunk, inadvertently knocking empty bottles on the floor as he exited the bar’s front door. His intention—the first impulse that surged to his brain—was to grab the pack of cigarettes indignantly from the dreadlocked man’s hand. But as Miles vaulted forward, the dreadlocked man gracefully ducked out of the way. Miles tried to find his balance, but stammered forward in drunken momentum. He felt no traction under his feet, only the uneven slope of the lawn, and then a red-hot burn filling his lower leg as his ankle twisted on a knot of grass. An electric pain crippled his whole foot and a surplus of air disappeared from his lungs in a quiet billow. Miles heard a jumble of voices in concerned tones, but was not yet lucid enough to decipher them. Two people—one of whom was clearly Nicholas—wrapped their arms around Miles and lifted him off the damp ground. Miles’ ankle throbbed to a degree where everything else felt curtained. When he looked up, he saw Nicholas along with the dreadlocked man and two shaggy-haired surfers gaping at him in concern. Crystalina was there too, she came into view like a constellation as Miles struggled to ignore the pain radiating from his ankle and focus on the faces.

The dreadlocked man shook his head at Miles. “Shit, bro, were you trying to punch me?”

Miles noticed that a lit cigarette was still tucked between the dreadlocked man’s lips, the pack of cigarettes still securely in his hand as well.

“Nicholas,” Miles said, ignoring the dreadlocked man entirely. “Nicholas—why were you smoking?”

Nicholas shrugged.

The dreadlocked man chimed in. “I asked him if he wanted a smoke,” he said, “and he told me you wouldn’t care since it’s vacation.”

Miles realized that his shoe felt too tight, his swelling foot pressing against the sides like bread being baked. Crystalina seemed to sense this. She knelt at his foot and gently scrutinized the swelling with her fingertips.

“My backpack upstairs has a first-aid kit,” she said.

Miles’ eyes fell on Nicholas, who appeared to approve of Crystalina’s proposed care. It was the first time that Miles could recall ever seeking his son’s endorsement for anything, which felt far too late but in a way that Miles couldn’t quite rationalize amid the pain.

Crystalina helped Miles up the establishment’s staircase, to the hostel. Miles couldn’t bear any weight on his injured ankle and had to lean heavily on the gentle curve of Crystalina’s shoulders. The room of bunk beds at the top of the stairs was dimly lit and smelled of rotting leather. There were four people passed out on the floor in sleeping bags, which Crystalina seemed to accept as normal. They were all much younger than Miles—perhaps college-aged. The clutter of backpacks and raingear and aired-out tents scattered around the room was comforting; Miles suddenly felt akin with the transience, felt his own life in this mess like catching his reflection in a spoon.

Crystalina eased Miles onto a bed. She rummaged through a backpack and withdrew a shrink-wrapped bandage. Miles was overcome with affection as Crystlina removed his shoe, then his sock. He enjoyed the coolness of her hands on his skin. She was tending to him, repairing his body, he thought. He tried to remember the last time he had experienced such nurturing—his drunk mind skipped around the timeline of his life but landed always back at this placid moment, Crystalina’s soft fingers on his bloated root of an ankle.

Crystalina wound the bandage around his ankle and then brought two tiny pills to his lips. “Take these,” she said. “They’re prescription—way strong.”

She placed her hand sweetly on the back of his head to help him sip water from a bottle. Miles leaned his head back on the pillow and enjoyed the feeling if his brain spinning from the alcohol. Crystalina unrolled her sleeping bag from a stuff sack and draped it over Miles’ body.

“I hope your sprained ankle doesn’t ruin the rest of your vacation,” she whispered.

“Already ruined,” Miles said, and closed his eyes.

“Aw, in that case, just rest,” she said. She was leaning close to his face. He could feel the warmth of her breath against his nose.  She then slid onto the bed beside him. He felt his equilibrium stabilize and his chest pound. Crystalina’s body beside him felt puzzling and alluring, the same way that Pam’s body had felt countless memories ago. Crystalina’s sleeping bag, too, smelled exotic—like pine needles and bullion broth—and Miles found such scents of travel, of seeing the world, irresistibly sexy. He turned sideways and stared at her mouth and impeccable teeth. He then pulled her body close, felt the soft ridge of her ribs beneath his hands, and kissed her. She squealed, surprised at such quickness, but Miles continued the long, oscillating kiss, imagining that time had miraculously digressed and his long-gone youth had actually never ended.

Miles emerged from a deep, dense sleep sometime later. The room was mostly dark, and he guessed the time to be around midnight. His ankle ached, although not with the neon intensity that he remembered. His whole body, in fact, felt swathed in a velvet grip from Crystalina’s prescription pain pills. It was this vague numbness that made him think of his family, and he began to worry about Nicholas’ whereabouts. He brushed away a corner of the sleeping bag and rolled over in the bed. Crystalina was sleeping in her underwear beside him, curled into a fetal pose. Her breasts were scrunched together in the faint light like two jewels in a riverbed. Miles was stricken with sorrow at the sight of her—sad for having had sex with her, sad at her now-unclothed shape so tranquil and young beside his oldness.

He brought himself to a seated position and then stood from the bed, careful not to wake her. He fumbled for his clothes in the dark, padding the floor with his hands and simply accepting any items he found as his own. He slinked into his pants and sweatshirt, slipped on his shoes, and snuck down the stairs with a limp.

The moon dropped a shred of light against the ridge outside the bar. Miles followed the glow when he could, but frequently found himself clomping through the mud in the darker line of trees, using the stumps for balance and pulling on the low branches for leverage as he walked back to the hotel.

Near one of the burial mounds, his bad ankle wobbled on a wet root and the pain became nearly unbearable. He wondered what would happen if he were to just give up there, submit to nature and accept a death in the damp countryside from such broken spirit. He continued walking though, driven by torturous regret and sadness.

Upon reaching the hotel, Miles noticed more flyers of the elderly Korean woman posted around the lobby entrance. The door of his hotel room was plastered with the flyers too—the old woman’s Xeroxed face shriveled like tangerine skin and advertising that bogus rejuvenation treatment. Miles found the flyers to be especially aggravating at this time of night, this culmination of circumstances. He sighed, entered his room, and flicked on Pam’s book light. The twins were snoring in their bed and Nicholas was thankfully asleep on the cot. Pam was asleep too, but stirred briefly to ask Miles where he’d been. She dozed off before he could answer thoroughly though.

Miles took his whole family to see the burial mounds the following morning, snapping photos of the trip with his camera through a translucent screen of drizzle. His ankle felt stiff, solidified at the ligaments. Pam had given him painkillers reserved for menstrual cramps from her purse and accepted his ramble of an explanation with a frown. “You got lost on the way home, and had to wait hours for a taxi?” She shook her head, as if such ineptitude was in line with Miles’ nature lately. “How could anyone get lost traveling in just one direction?”

A sharp wind swept across the countryside, jolting the tall grass around the mounds into slanted angles. Shivering, Pam asked if she could borrow Miles’ sweatshirt. Miles removed it and handed it to her as a strong gust swished the leaves in the trees.

“Your sweatshirt stinks,” Pam said, nuzzling her nose into the collar.

Miles felt wrenched with the fear that Pam would detect something—maybe Crystalina’s scent—that would beget the truth.

But Pam just recoiled from the musty stench of sweat and said, “Never mind, I’ll just freeze.”

Miles took back his sweatshirt and inhaled a whiff. It smelled dank and grimy—the distinct odor of the strange hostel from the previous night. He wished he could throw away the sweatshirt immediately.

The family retreated back to the hotel as a unit without Miles. Miles stayed outside, suddenly and unexpectedly compelled to do something evil—to do something with uncharacteristic fury. He walked out to the street garden in a daze, and then down the paved walkway along Haemyundo-gil as the guidebook had instructed. He would break the law, he decided, and go to the elusive Green Sand Beach himself. A solitary act of defiance—him against the world.

But Miles’ body felt tired, inadequate for continued walking. A few trash collectors on a bench by the shore chided him in Korean as he climbed over the barricade onto the trail toward the Green Sand Beach. He felt a jagged poke deep inside his ankle with each step, and stopped to rest on the side of the path when the pain was too strong.

There was a crisp breeze off the ocean and it made Miles’ neck cold.

He just couldn’t do it, couldn’t find the will to continue down the trail to the green sand. He thought about his children, wondered if they viewed the family as a failure. He regretted compiling such a distant and elaborate vacation when staying home in Columbus with all its frustrations and familiarities would have at least kept the family in close proximity to each other. All he had wanted were positive memories from the trip, a few snapshots, yet even those had proven elusive.

Miles turned around, backtracked on the path and Haemyundo-gil, and then came to an elderly lady crumpled on a public street stage a few blocks from the hotel. There was no crowd observing her, just a smooth-faced child sitting at her side. The sight—the elderly lady’s sheer frailty, startled Miles.

Miles spotted a stack of papers in an open bag next to the smooth-faced child, and approached the stage with perplexity. He cast a long gaze at the rough, tan skin of the elderly woman’s face, leery of why she was sprawled so publically in filthy sheets of clothing. It chimed in his mind then—this was the old woman from the flyers. She was motionless aside from the subtle cadence of her chest, breaths no deeper than single syllabic gasps. Miles was awash with sorrow to see that the lady was crippled, her thin legs entwined in a bony coil beneath her waist. Miles rested his arms on the edge of the stage. The child lifted an earthen bowl of coins and paper bills, to which Miles contributed what little loose money he still possessed. The old woman lifted a hand to Miles’ face and touched his unshaven chin. Miles knew it wasn’t a rejuvenation scam. Rather, the old woman was dying—this was the touch of a dying woman, he thought.

Miles backed away from the stage and detected a knot of remorse weighing inside him. He gazed at the gray sky and the spindly line of trees along the street. How could the woman gaze at such monotony all day, dwelling on her worthless limbs? It panged Miles to think about it, to see the woman’s state of existence.

He looked at the ends of the stage, where passersby had left prayer beads and a Korean Bible and ginseng roots and other accouterments of hope and healing. Miles wished he had something more to give, wished this more than anything in the heft of the moment. He remained by the stage as the child put down the bowl of money and began to massage the old woman’s legs.    

 

Miles moved Pam and the kids into a different hotel that night, after Choo demanded that they leave following the soap dish incident. The new hotel was smaller, and had dark stains on the carpet where water had condensed in hotter months. Bumps and TV sounds could be heard through the walls at all hours of the day and the small refrigerator buzzed throughout the night.

One drizzly morning, on a walk through a street market, a bald man marveled at the camera around Miles’ neck. Miles decided to sell it to the man on the spot, and felt relieved to be free of the cumbersome weight around his neck. Pam watched in surprise, but never questioned Miles’ decision. Later, Miles took the family out to eat at a colorful buffet by the ocean. Nicholas and the twins piled their plates with cyclonic shellfish and fried shrimp the color of sand. Pam, as well, took salad and a triangular slice of pork roast.

Nicholas pulled Miles aside near the bathroom sink that night and asked if the family was running out of money. The question surprised Miles since Nicholas had never before cared about the family’s finances. But his son was dead-serious with his question, his gaze as intense as a quasar.

“No,” Miles said. “We have plenty of money.”

“Just as long as we have enough to get home,” Nicholas said as his mouth filled with toothpaste foam.

Miles climbed into the hotel bed beside Pam to sleep. Pam had dozed off with her paperback fanned at her side. Miles moved it to the nightstand, his hand gently brushing against the soft trim of her nightgown, causing her to twitch. His ankle still hurt, but even in just a few days, the swelling had gone down considerably. Pam had stopped asking about it, which made it easier to forget. And with that, he soon forgot about Crystalina too. He had watched as a big group of backpackers clomped down Haemyundo-gil one morning and thought perhaps Crystalina would be among them. But he didn’t bother to check. It pleased him to think about Crystalina’s travel ambitions, the world presenting its wellspring of possibilities to her, and that was enough.    

On the plane ride back to the United States, he sat near a window and gazed down at the fabric of clouds. Pam was seated beside him, and the kids were across the aisle. As a toddler, Nicholas had been so afraid of heights that even watching Miles climb the ladder to the garage set off a crying tantrum. Miles found such a memory pleasant and amusing now, as the plane rose higher over the brightness, over the beautiful beaches and hotels and even over the crippled woman and the smooth-faced child somewhere far below. It was all down there, he knew, beneath the clouds and sky and imperceptible fibers of the atmosphere. Miles stared at his wife, wondered about all her thoughts, and eased into the cushioned seat for the long trip home.    

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