Ben slipped out through the pub’s back door. As soon as he stepped on the rain-wet pavement in the dark, secluded alley, he whirled around and caught the heavy steel panel. Slowly, very carefully, he guided it into the frame. The door closed with barely a soft clicking sound.
Only then did Ben relax. He sighed and looked up at the night sky, yellowed and pinked and greened by the numerous store signs. They exuded their garish luminance from every single building in this crowded Itaewon district of the megacity Seoul. Because their collective presence was so bright, even at an indirect angle, no one from City Hall had bothered to install a streetlamp in an alley as narrow and small as this one. If you were so close to the light, even utter darkness needn’t feel scary and bleak. Just take one step forward, and voila, pure light awaits.
Ben smiled. He was fond of the signs. They made this the place to be when you were twenty-something and free. Not this alley, specifically, where the reek of some drunkard’s puke still dominated despite the surprise shower that had swept the puddle away. Rather, Ben meant this particular district. Here, brilliance blinded everybody, so nobody cared about your skin color or where you came from.
Almost nobody, to be exact. Also, only most of the time, not always.
Ben walked toward the bigger street at the end of the alley. Promptly, the smell of every cuisine in the world filled his nostrils. Spicy Indian curry. Oily, rich Peking duck. Sweet cinnamon cookies. His mouth watered, even though minutes ago, in the pub, he’d felt nauseated by a similar omnipresence of food smell. All the good things sometimes turned bad when there were too many of them. The name of the pub was the “World’s Fair.” And Ben’s boss had taken the literal meaning of the phrase to the next level with the variety of his menu.
Anyway, fresh air helped you forget all your woes, especially in autumn. The phenomenon called “autumn” had become so rare in this part of the world in recent years (climate change, they said), when people found themselves in it, they simply rejoiced. You live in a steamer or a freezer for most of the year, then the two weeks of middle-state feel like a miraculous blessing. And thus you forgot why you’d felt so miserable and had needed to sneak away from your work.
The tourists and native Seoulites filling the street seemed to share Ben’s cheerful sentiment. Everyone wore something light and breezy. They didn’t sweat, they didn’t feel cold. Ben only wore a T-shirt (with WORLD’S FAIR written in big letters on the back) and jeans. If he hadn’t been working, he would’ve worn flip-flops. But sneakers were required for work. (The kitchen, even when you only entered it briefly and occasionally, could be a dangerous place.) The sound of people’s laughter uplifted his mood. Insomnia could be blissful if it had been sought after, and in a big city, many did. The night was young. Presently, truly nobody cared that some lanky rando stood observing them from an alley at 2 a.m..
And when a cat began meowing behind Ben, they didn’t care either. Ben looked around. He’d heard of cats roaming the city in search of leftovers. But strangely enough, he’d never encountered one before. Now was the moment of first contact, apparently.
Grinning, Ben tiptoed toward the dead end. The meowing grew louder. The cat was positively crying.
At this thought, Ben stopped grinning. Come to think of it, this crying sounded like…
But that couldn’t possibly be.
Or could it?
He stopped by a mountain of large, black trash bags that blocked his way to the big main dumpster and the row of smaller bins. He crouched down. A bundle of black cloth lay on the wet ground. Through the cloth, he could make out skin. There was no fur on it.
What squirmed and cried in the bundle was no cat. It was a humanoid newborn.
Humanoid, not human, was what Ben thought, because the scaly snakeskin of its protruding forehead glowed blue in the little light that reached the deep end of the alley. A blue baby. A veritable shade of baby blue.
“Who told you you could take a break?” a man said in Korean from behind.
Ben jumped up, even though the tone had been mildly amused, by no means angry. He whirled around. His boss, Mr. Kang, stood in the middle of the alley. Because of the backlight from the well-lit street, Ben could only make out the big man’s silhouette. That included Mr. Kang’s signature beard. It was so bushy and so massive, and his head so smoothly bald, if you didn’t already know him, you might think that someone had taken his head and twisted it upside-down. Also, the paunch. Mr. Kang had nurtured a quite significant one that suited the stereotypical picture of a pub owner who served all kinds of food that went with all kinds of alcohol.
You want wine? We got steak.
You want soju? We got grilled pork belly.
You want makgeolli? We got green onion pancake.
Good food knows no borders, was Mr. Kang’s motto, and with that, he embodied the very spirit of Itaewon. That was why he’d hired Ben without prejudice—after making sure that Ben had the right paperwork, of course. And Mr. Kang had neither been too delighted nor too suspicious of Ben’s fluent command of the Korean language. This, in turn, had delighted Ben. Sometimes, it felt nice to feel invisible in a safe way. You couldn’t stay transparent all the time (or you wouldn’t survive in this world that relies on shells as shortcuts to judging a person), but sometimes, utter and total neutrality felt nice.
The only comment Mr. Kang had made regarding Ben’s language skills was: Would be nice to have a server who can understand what I’m talking about and also what a tourist customer is talking about. And Ben liked him for only stating that simple truth. You see, it sort of got tiring to have people compliment you on how well you spoke the language, as if the entire country of South Korea wasn’t used to the idea of people learning a second language. If local kindergarteners could speak simple English sentences on top of fluent Korean, Ben could speak fluent Korean on top of English as a grown man who’d always wanted to live in a cosmopolis. No big deal.
Anyway, the only problem with Mr. Kang: he loved his pub with the fierce love of a mother bird guarding her nest. And he didn’t like when things happened on its premises and he didn’t know about it. Ben’s sneaking away for five minutes might not have made him angry, but a blue baby that might be human but might also not be? For sure.
“What are you doing there, staring at me like that?” Mr. Kang said. He sounded slightly worried. He approached.
“N-no!” Ben said, holding up his arms.
Mr. Kang flinched back. “What’s wrong, son?”
“There’s a dead cat here!”
Goodness. Was that the best he could’ve come up with?
“A what?” Mr. Kang said. Now he was marching toward Ben for real.
Baby Blue mewled again.
“That cat’s not dead,” Mr. Kang said. “Is it a cat? It doesn’t sound like—”
“Ah— It— I— It looks so gruesome, I thought it was dead, but apparently not. It got, it got driven over. It— I think someone drove over it with a motorcycle and then threw it in the garbage.”
“My goodness, we have to take it to the vet’s then.”
“I’ll do it!”
“I can’t have you leave yet. Your shift doesn’t end until three. I’ll ask Sera if she’ll drop it off at the vet’s. I think I saw one at exit 6 of the subway station.”
“Sera will cry if she sees it. She loves cats. And this one’s all mangled and bloody.”
Mr. Kang grimaced. He’d come close enough for Ben to recognize his facial features now. His big bulbous nose looked comically small, all scrunched up like that. And his thick black beard shivered with horror for the poor nonexistent cat and fury that some cruel careless moron had not only been driving recklessly, but also had the audacity to toss a heavily injured cat in the back alley of his sacred World’s Fair.
“Okay, fine,” Mr. Kang said. “I guess this does count as an emergency.”
Ben nodded fiercely.
“You get the cat to the vet’s right now. Wait a minute, I’ll get a clean apron or something. You can’t just carry a bleeding cat—”
“No, it’s okay, it’s okay. I have a handkerchief.”
Mr. Kang raised a brow. “A classy gentleman.”
“That I am, sir.”
For a moment, Mr. Kang hesitated between leaving and peering around Ben. Then he shook his head. Just because he was a big bald man with a massive beard didn’t mean he could handle the image of a hurt cat in his head. His night, unlike Ben’s, was to last until 5 a.m., considering how long it took to clean up after closing. Who’d want to think about a poor cat while toiling that late into the dawn?
Mr. Kang made a half-hearted waving-off gesture. Then he went back into the pub through the back door. Ben waited for it to close with a clear click. Then he crouched down. With a deep frown, keeping his face as far away from the bundle as possible, he reached for the black cloth that cradled Baby Blue.
The cloth felt soft against his touch. And expensive. Like silk. Surprised, he winced. For some reason, he’d expected coarse fabric. After all, if someone could abandon a baby in a dark alley, why would they bother to use nice fabric? Whether the baby was a cat, human, or some kind of humanoid species was completely irrelevant. The parents—or whoever had been in charge of caring for the baby—had to be truly cruel people. Or aliens.
Aliens! Right in the back alley of the World’s Fair! Surely Mr. Kang hadn’t wanted this element of the world in the vicinity of his business.
When Ben picked up the bundle, the baby babbled a string of meaningless words. It seemed to find the warmth of Ben’s arms welcoming. And no wonder. Through the silk, Ben could feel how icy cold its tiny body was. That was strange. The bundle was pretty thick, and the night air felt neither chill nor hot. The baby couldn’t have lost body heat because of the cold weather, or because it’d gotten sick from excessive heat and was dying.
Besides, a sick baby couldn’t possibly smell so nice, could it? It smelled of fresh laundry, of all things. Very high-end, expensive bar soap made of some extremely concentrated and potent material. And the baby felt leadenly heavy in his arms. Incredible, Ben thought, and shook his head softly.
Then, he had to do it. He had to see what the baby looked like in its entirety. Snake scales everywhere? Did it have a tail? Maybe it didn’t have legs. Maybe its lower body looked like that of a fish…
<Do not move,> someone said from behind.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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