This story was first written in 2011 whilst living in Seoul, South Korea. At the time, I was interested in creating a series of ghost stories which would also serve to offer a kind of observational commentary on Korean culture from an outsiders perspective.
It has since been submitted, and rejected, seven or more times, workshopped online, redrafted eight times. There are two other uncompleted stories in the Korean Ghosts series, ‘The Red Light Gutter Monster’ and a novel, ‘Sangoo’s Phone’.
The Ghost on the Gyeongbu Expressway
by Andrew Irwin
Last Memorial Day long weekend my buddies and I decided to take a little trip out of Seoul. We packed our bags, shorts, and t-shirts, ready to soak up the sun of Busan. Ever been south? City’s the same shit fight as Seoul but the air’s clean and the people, chilled. It’s on the beach, you see?
We took the bus from Express Bus Terminal, south of the Han river in fancy upper-class Gangnam. Constructed as a giant U, hundreds of buses line the terminal’s inner walls of towering concrete pillars and inside, crowds of travelers move like salmon bobbing, pushing and fighting their way upstream. The four of us, myself the lone Australian amongst three Yankees, boarded a luxury bus adorned with expansive mock leather seats of deep maroon. Korean buses put their western counterparts to shame; pairs of wide leather seats on the right, singles on the left and a row of four-way down back, room to spare without a care. Us four, we took the rear wall.
The bus rumbled through the city’s tangled rise and fall to the expressway link roads and we talked for a while about the usual; the joys and woes of teaching, cultural oddities, dreams for the weekend, dreams for the lives we’ve left behind, dreams we’ve forgotten and left lost in the clouds, dreams we hope to see again. As night fell, the push and rise of package high-rise apartments gave way to the wide expanse of rolling shadows, hills, valleys and fields of empty black.
Sometime around ten or eleven, I woke to the sudden lurch of the bus pulling into oncoming traffic and for a moment, I felt the reaper’s claws tight around my heart. Truck headlights blinded us and I anticipated impact. Clenching my stomach I imagined I was a pinball, hard as steel, invulnerable to chaos, able to punch through the imminent twisted metal and sparks with no more harm done than the loss of a credit and another launch, another retry. I’d die; I’d see the lights and the universe would pull back its great spring and launch me again.
The bus driver rolled the wheel and as quickly as the bus had lurched into traffic, we slammed back on course. Headlights flashed past. I glanced over and noticed my buddies’ knuckles, white like my own. Peter sat two down from me, his eyes, glowing spheres in the pale red cabin light. He shook his head at me, a seasick bob from side to side.
“It started an hour ago,” he said. “How could you sleep?”
Beside me sat Neil, crunched into a ball. His skin matched the pallid white of his eyes.
The bus lurched again and collectively, we held our breath along with our hearts. A second later, it rolled back onto course and I heard the passengers, ourselves and the twenty-four Koreans on board, breathe out as one. Nobody said a word.
Caleb lent against the far window, his face illuminated by his handphone’s pale glow.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He hiccupped something that sounded like “my-pam-ne-yauerk” and then dropped the phone into his lap, clapped a hand to his mouth. He hiccupped and whatever came up, he swallowed back down.
The fucker. The driver was falling asleep and we all knew it, but everyone was too terrified, too chicken-shit to do anything about it, present company included. We each made our mental excuses; I can’t be sure, or Maybe it’s just me… or perhaps, I can’t accuse the man of falling asleep, maybe he’s avoiding potholes or rabbits – he’s a fucking environmentalist, that’s it! My best excuse was even simpler, My Korean sucks, there’s no way I can tell him to take a rest or have a coffee or that we’re all scared shitless. I chanted this one as a mantra despite knowing it was a lie. I spoke a little and body language, was universal. The truth was, I was scared and all of us, the Korean passengers, my friends, myself, were cowards.
The next time it happened we would crash, the bus would careen across two lanes and rip through traffic, narrowly avoiding a small sedan, only to be taken out by the aforementioned truck or more likely, a charter bus loaded with Korea’s next hot girl group. Something for the masses to bemoan. After the buses’ twisted wreckage and the subsequent pile-up of a dozen speeding cars of holiday makers cooled, I would be the lone survivor pulled from the wreckage (pinball you see?) and the police would question me and the news cameras would roll and from my hospital bed, limbs in so much plaster, they’d ask me: Did you ever suspect anything was wrong? Do you have any idea what caused this tragedy? And worst of all; Was there anything you could have done to prevent this? and I’d close my eyes and fail to still my heart. I’d swallow and a tear would escape my strained red eyes and I’d look through the TV lens into the faces of families, broken and torn, and I’d lie.
No. It was all so sudden.
And then I’d cry and say nothing more and they’d leave me alone, alone with my guilt.
The bus lurched again and I shut my eyes, mistakenly opening them as the driver wheeled us towards a low concrete barrier and a mammoth drop into a black canyon below. He counter-steered as forcefully as the drunken basket ride at Lotte World, we steadied and as quick as it had come, the bridge disappeared into the past behind us. Like the baskets, we were whipped into a corner, squashing Neil against the window pane. Several boxes and a briefcase fell from the luggage racks, the latter exploding into a cloud of loose papers midway down the aisle. A portly business man made to grab them but he was thrown into his armrest as the bus lurched again. He held on with two hands and watched as his papers spread themselves across the floor.
Street lamps passed by with increasing frequency and as I pulled myself back into my seat, I hastened to fasten my seatbelt. We careened around a bend. Tail lights, glowing hot like the devil’s eyes, burst into view. The backside of a midnight purple bus rapidly filled the front window pane. Impact was imminent.
“Oh fuck me.”
My dying words, poetic huh? And they were said to nobody bar myself. What else could I say? In the face of death, would you claim others? Sugarlips in the face of the reaper’s grin? We must’ve been doing a hundred and forty.
“BRAKES!” I screamed, in English of course, my panic tongue, whilst I drove my right foot into the floor, but what good would any language have been? English, Korean, Armenian, Turkish… the driver was deaf to all but the sandman’s call. My invisible pedal succeeded only in slowing time. Not real time, none of that, just the acute sensation you get when something perfect (or terrible) happens and your body cranks up the juice. Clarity, times ten.
Fifty metres from impact, the rear window of the midnight purple bus exploded and a body flew out. It wore a trench coat that rippled in the wind. Our driver, oblivious to this new horror, drove us onwards with no deviation in speed or track.
The falling body caught in our headlights. I remember it clearly. It fell through our headlights, bounced once on the road and disappeared beneath our wheels with a dull thunk.
We bounced over the body as we barrelled into the bus in front. A high pitched wail erupted and I felt the impact in my heart, but saw the other bus vanish with my eyes. Where it should’ve been, compacting our progression as we crumpled against its rear, was nothing but empty road. Despite this, the front window pane exploded from the impossible impact and one by one, the others exploded inwards in violent succession. Faces were shredded left and right, and in the midst of it, I saw a phantasm take form. A corpse, a twisted apparition, clung to the front window frame. It was unmistakably human but the perverted angulation of its limbs was wrong. Several feet of ragged hair flapped in the wind, though the creature was partially bald. Missing chunks of its scalp hung, dancing in the air amidst those ragged locks, hanging from ends stuck, matted in pools of coagulated blood, dried in mounds within the hollow of the thing’s open chest cavity. Snapped ribs looked as white eyes peering from scab. It wore the same trench coat as the body that had fallen from the purple bus, the one we had run down.
We ran off the road and burst through the concrete guardrail. For a moment, it seemed like we were flying towards the stars but then gravity wrapped itself around us and we plunged earthbound. My heart and stomach flew to my throat. The apparition hung and fell with us.
Hair covered its eyes but I could feel it watching me. It stretched open its maw and sucked in the atmosphere like a vacuum. The stars winked out and all light vanished, leaving only I and it, afloat in absence. Something twinkled through a hole in its chest.
Existence was a line drawing in white ash on space. The framework of a bus. I. It. In nothingness.
Its jaws split further open, impossibly huge and it spewed out the stars and lights of the world in a bleeding scream that threatened to split me in two. It rushed forwards, through the driver, its jaws growing wider still. Its glow illuminated seats and frozen passengers one by one as it closed the distance. Its mammoth jaws expanded until they stretched from floor to ceiling, wailing all the way. Nails on blackboards, piglets screeching, children skinned alive— all were preferable. It closed on me, all darkness and light and above its cavernous maw, I caught sight of its eyes, two diamond moons with a glint of fire inside. My heart skipped a beat, my throat closed and the world returned to ash and nothing. I collapsed and crashed my forehead into the seat in front of me. Blood and sweat stung my eyes and flooded the floor, pooling around my feet. I stared at my reflection, pallid but alive, and the apparition stared back. Weevils crawled beneath my skin.
“Hey! Hey!” Reality snapped.
Hands on my shoulders, shaking me.
“The fuck?” said someone, I don’t know who. Things are fuzzy here, muscular pains and then blackness.
The next I remember, Peter was crouched on his haunches with his back against the seat in front of me and a hand on my knee. The aroma of walnut cakes swamped me and I coughed, choking back a hiccup of bile. Peter held a paper bag, complete with leftover cakes, over my mouth and nose. I pushed it away, but he held firm and the paper scrunched and unscrunched as I breathed.
“Yo! Look at me man!” Peter snapped his fingers, he sounded on edge. His face was pale.
“You still with us? Are you okay?”
I nodded and looked around the bus. The other passengers stared at me, craning their necks or standing if necessary, to get the best possible view. The bus hugged the kerb and moved at a crawl. The orange infrared focus aid of a digital camera glowed and I noticed a dozen or more hand-phones held high, photographing, videoing, capturing everything I was doing. Was I crazy? We’d crashed and yet here we were, all alive and well and everyone was staring at me. The interior lights were on, that dim safety light and I noted with fear not relief, just how whole the bus was.
“Where’s the bus?” I asked and I clarified my answer in response to my friends’ concerns. “The midnight purple one, it was in front us and we…we ran into it.” Nothing but blank stares. My throat grew dry.
“I saw a man,” I tried, coughing as I spoke, “Or a thing… He was thrown through the window and we hit him. We fell. We…” I paused and I decided to leave out the apparition, the phantom, the ghost.
Neil, Peter, and Caleb looked at each other, not knowing what to say. Peter spoke first.
“Have you ever had seizures before?” My face must’ve said no because he nodded and continued. “My sister used to get them when she was young, full on seizures where she’d shut down and thrash around for a good few minutes or more. All we could do was pad the area and make sure she was safe.”
I noticed the collection of jackets that surrounded me.
“We didn’t know what else to do. You got pretty violent and people kind’ve freaked out.”
My mind was swimming.
“I’m not epileptic.”
“Well,” said Peter, “you’d better hope you’re wrong. We should find you a doctor once we get to Busan.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. I turned away, reached out and ran a hand over the cold window pane, carving a swath through the condensation. The window was real and my hand came away wet.
I frowned. I saw the window burst. I felt the wind in my hair as we fell through the sky. Those memories were so real that it made this reality seem like a black and white dream.
The cabin lighting dimmed and the bus accelerated onto the road, stopping, thankfully, at what felt like the national limit. Most of the Korean passengers ceased recording and turned away but their interest clearly remained, their faces illuminated in the darkness by hand-phone light. YouTube, Naver, Daum I thought. Peter had returned to his seat and Neil leaned over him, nudged me and smiled.
“At least you woke up the driver. These guys,” he gestured, “should be thanking you, hell, we all should. You probably saved our lives.”
I snorted. So that was real but it wouldn’t play out that way online. Netizens love this shit and I could hardly wait to see the headlines, the blogs and especially for the round-table conference at school lunch. I sighed. Maybe it’d been too dark to see my face… I shivered and tried not to imagine my brain addled with undiagnosed scabs and holes. Staring into the night, a queer sensation of loneliness settled upon me.
The weekend was uneventful. My friends played beach frisbee and drank soju and beer until they yurked and made street pizza. I did neither. I sat, a hollow shell with neither smile nor frown. When we returned to Seoul, I did so, at great expense, by plane. My friends argued but I could not be dissuaded. We split, all returning safely, and life, as it does, went on.
In the weeks that followed Busan I was plagued by bad dreams starring the apparition from the bus. The image I remember strongest is one of me staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, only I have my doubts that it was myself that was staring back. I grew irritable, easily agitated, and developed a kind of awareness that allowed me to understand more clearly what the Koreans around me did and said. Maybe it was the awareness that did it, or maybe it as the lack of sleep, but god, know this— the child had it coming.
I was an English teacher and, as what will come as a great surprise to none, the beginning of the end came when I clipped the fifth grader around the head. I made the news a second time, though nobody managed to link the two stories, thank fuck for that. I can’t remember why I did it, my mind was full of strange memories at the time, but I’m sure he deserved it. Thinking back, I remember the days when I walked the halls with cane in hand educating a generation that grew up strong; fear of a lackadaisical nature was written in the welts across their thighs. Outside, there is a boy playing tree house in the Eucalypts. Something of these memories is false.
Gossip surfaced at school, whispers behind closed doors became barely disguised accusations in the halls. Meetings washed over me in a babble like the incessant MEM-MEM drone of summer cicadas. I collected my next paycheque and then stopped going to school. It didn’t seem important to call. It didn’t seem right to answer the phone.
I slept. I drank. I ate delivery, jja-jja-myeon, black bean noodles, mostly, and I shit. I didn’t leave my one-room apartment and the trash and filth piled about me like the grime on my skin. I didn’t answer the knocks at my door. My hair became a point of fascination for me and I would lay there in my filth, belly full of noodles, stroking my long darkening hair for hours.
By then I’d stopped showering and at some point between soju bottle and cigarette, I noticed that my skin seemed to have taken on a slightly jaundiced hue. Escape from this country crossed my mind but it felt wrong. I liked it here, my roots seemed to be here, and every day I stayed I felt happier, a pig in shit, like my self-exile had somehow brought me closer to the heart of Korean culture— to survival. Who was I and from which soup did I come?
Sooner, rather than later, the police came but time enough had passed. They rapped and pounded on my door but looked awfully confused when it opened and they saw me standing there, all shaggy black hair, button nose and not a hair on my thin chest, clad in trench, grime and nothing else but my birthday suit. They were looking for a foreigner they said and I told them that a foreigner had moved out long ago. I might be filthy officer, but no, I don’t know where he is. A midnight runner perhaps? Pressured and cracked by the endless onslaught of big city life. Foreigners weren’t used to the pace of Korean life, I said. It made them run. Check Itaewon. Check the clubs, I said. Foreigners, they’ll be the death of our nation.
The police left, scratching their caps, and I followed shortly afterwards. They’d return and the time, I felt, had come to move.
My building manager screamed as she chased me from the grounds, perhaps for the deathly cadaver stench of my room which now permeated the building, perhaps for the grime I’d trailed down the hall. Security tailed behind her. They shouted in turn, she in hysterics and he with the inflated threats of an old, once-strong man, echoing cries into a world that’s moved beyond his time. I wheeled and stared them down. The embers in my eyes glowed. The old man clasped his chest and fell to his knees. His life bought me time along with a smile.
Lost in a city which had grown larger and more complex since my own most recent memories, I wandered until finally, I was drawn to the Express Bus Terminal. There I waited in a familiar place, seated on a well-remembered bench amidst the terminal crowd by gate one. There, I watched the bob and flow of the salmon, pushing and shoving, fighting their way upstream to awaiting tin cans on wheels. I wondered about their lives, where they were going and why felt they needed to rush so. When I think about my own life, sometimes I try to put together the pieces of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Many of the pieces from my past bother me more than they should, but no matter how I juggle them, they seem mismatched, and I am unable to form a cohesive whole. I wonder if the people milling about me ever have the same problem. The same sensation of being someone else, of living someone else’s dream. My hands are not my own, I am certain of this, but I am less certain as to the shade of my skin which seems to shift with the shadows.
A young girl boards the bus, along with a mother and child. A businessman in a too-metallic grey suit follows and the rest of the passengers blur one into the other. I’ve been here before. The Gyeongbu line. I’ve ridden this bus and I know I must ride it again. I board without a ticket but nobody questions my presence. I seat myself with someone to whom I can read. They’re quiet and look slightly away when I sit. Their jeans are fashionably ripped.
The engine rumbles and the bus shudders to life. Soon, the tangled city gives way to rolling shadows, the bus rising and falls with the valleys and turns in the black night. I drift into some other place and, well beyond the midnight hour, I wake to call of my bones, yearning from the place where they lay. I can feel the membrane which separates events in time growing thin as the bus steadily closes the distance between us and them. I rise and make my way down the aisle.
“Driver,” I say, “pull over. I gotta pee.”
He tells me that there are no unscheduled stops and I smile. This time, you can’t say I didn’t ask.