Dokkaebi

My name is Adam, and the first time it happened, I was walking home from work a little after 10:00 at night. I finished teaching my last class of Korean elementary school kids at 8, and then I had a lesson with a small group of three high school kids who I taught once a week for free because their parents couldn’t afford the high price of language academies. Some of the other teachers were going out for drinks at a nearby chicken and beer place, but I wanted to get home to my new wife, Minhee.

It felt like a film that someone had cut frames out of. I was walking along the moonlit roadside when I saw a dancing blue flame on the side of one of the mountains. I came to a stop and squinted at it. It floated in the air, illuminating the trees around it.

And after a few seconds, I realized it was coming toward me.

The next moment I found myself sitting on a bus stop bench a mile away. I checked my phone. 11:47 PM. I’d left work at about 10:15, and had only walked for ten minutes.

I’d lost well over an hour.

My phone showed two messages from my wife, asking where I was. But I didn’t even know the answer. And now that I do know, I wish to hell I didn’t.

I live and teach English in South Korea, in a village called Gangha. It’s my wife’s hometown. In university, I majored in English, and after I graduated, a friend suggested I try teaching here because Korean language schools always want teachers who were English majors. There were a lot of jobs in Seoul, but I wanted an authentic, rural Korean experience. So I ended up in Gangha, with its beautiful mountains, farms and the great Han River. And best of all, I met my wife.

Living in Gangha had been great. Until that night.

I slowly stood from the bench and put one foot in front of the other, my brow furrowed and my mind racing. Maybe I’d fallen and hit my head. But nothing hurt. Or, maybe I’d eaten something strange that day. No, nobody lost their memory from food poisoning, did they? Anyway, I didn’t feel sick.

A fear sprouted deep in my gut, fluttering through my insides. I thought of Dan, a guy from my class in high school who I was facebook friends with. Last year he found out he has cancer, a brain tumor that crippled him with a variety of symptoms, one of which was memory problems.

A brain tumor.

I stopped in my tracks on the narrow, winding country road. In the moonlight, the thick late-summer rice swayed lazily in the breeze. A cacophony of hundreds of frog calls rose up into the night air and echoed off the mountains. At that moment, I didn’t doubt one bit that I had a tumor growing in my brain.

Okay, call me a hypochondriac, but how else could I possibly explain the memory gap?

But now that I know what actually happened, I wish it were cancer instead. I’d take cancer over the truth in a heartbeat.

 

When I got home to our little, old Korean house, Minhee greeted me at the door and her face immediately told me she wasn’t too happy. I could hear her parents’ voices in the living room. By her father’s volume, I guessed they’d already gone through a few bottles of soju.

“Where have you been? I told you my parents were coming over tonight.”

I dropped my backpack on the floor and slipped my shoes off. “I’m sorry. Listen, something really weird happened tonight. Kind of freaking me out, actually.”

Her expression shifted from anger to concern. “What?”

Looking into her dark, almond-shaped eyes, I could hardly bring myself to say it. Right after I’d found a job I liked and a wife I adored, the universe wanted to take it all away from me with cancer.

“I think there’s something wrong with me.” I told her what little I could about my time loss that night, along with my worry that I had a brain tumor.

“Stop it. You’re such a hypochondriac. Maybe you just zoned out for a while on your walk home. Come on, my parents are here. My dad’s not going to be satisfied until you have some soju with him.”

For a second I pictured how bad she was going to feel when I was wasting away on my deathbed. “I just want to check online to research about what happened to me for like five minutes. Then I’ll join in. Okay?”

She rolled her eyes, then nodded.

As I walked into the living room, I greeted her parents. As usual, her mother immediately tried to make me eat and her father tried to make me drink. They were farmers, good people, always very nice to me even though I was a foreigner, a fact that many older Korean parents wouldn’t have been able to accept.

So I made excuses in broken Korean, told them I’d be right back but I had to finish up a couple work things on my computer first. When I got in my bedroom and shut the door, I googled “brain tumor” and “memory,” and within two minutes I became utterly convinced I’d soon be dead.

After turning the laptop off, I sat there for what felt like a really long time, staring at the wall. Only thirty years old, already slapped with a death sentence. When I finally pulled myself together and came out, I had a hard time faking a good mood for the family. After sitting on the floor near the small, low table and having a few glasses of soju with my father-in-law, my mother-in-law asked what was wrong.

Why lie? Why not just come out with it? I started with a sentence or two in Korean to tell them what had happened that night, but it was beyond my language skills. I turned to Minhee. “Can you tell them?”

She quickly rattled off a half-dozen sentences, repeating in Korean what I’d told her. I fully expected them to react the same as my wife, waving off the time loss and possible brain tumor. But instead, their faces turned grave and they exchanged knowing glances.

“What is it?” I asked.

Her father tossed back a small glass of soju and sucked air through his teeth, while her mother started talking to me in Korean very slowly and simply so I could follow her. “I am very sorry to tell you this, but I think you met a dokkaebi.”

“Dokkaebi? What’s that?”

Although she hardly ever drank, she picked up a glass and held it out for my wife to fill. Minhee did, then filled the three others at the table. We all drank, then my mother-in-law explained. “A dokkaebi is a creature of Korean folklore, a mythical being like a goblin.”

Minhee laughed. “Mom, stop. That’s silly.”

Her father broke in. “Listen to your mother. This is a serious matter.”

My mother-in-law continued. “I had a cousin named Jiho. He grew up just down the street from me, and our families were close. He was like an older brother. Everyone liked him because he was kind and funny. Smart, too. Back then, not many people went to college, but he did. Got accepted to Seoul National University, even.”

She stopped, apparently collecting her thoughts, and my wife poured another for everyone at the table. After drinking again, as if bracing herself to face the memory, my mother-in-law continued. “Anyway. When I was in my late teens, he was in his early twenties. He’d just finished his military service and was studying at university when it first happened.”

Maybe it was the soju or the weird mood of the night, but the story sucked me in despite my initial skepticism at the word “goblin.”

“What happened?” I asked.

She shook her head and sighed. “He changed. Although he had always been a diligent student, suddenly he started missing his classes. And then he even dropped out.” She paused as if to let that information sink in. “From Seoul National University. Can you imagine? But more than that, his whole personality darkened. He started drinking heavily. Every day, all day. Where he’d once been outgoing and fun, he instead grew introverted and depressed.”

With the late hour and all the soju starting to hit me, I struggled to put my thoughts into Korean and had to speak very slowly. “Did you talk to him about it?”

“I did.” She paused, and I took the que to pour for my wife and in-laws. We downed them, and she looked older and more tired than when she started the story. “One night when he was very drunk, he told me that he’d met a dokkaebi while walking home at night. He said he saw a light, a dancing blue flame, and felt drawn to it. Then, the next thing he knew, he found himself on a different road, hours later, with no memory of what he’d done or where he’d been in that time. A week later, it happened again. The first few times, he had no idea what happened. But then…”

I leaned forward, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. “What?”

“It continued, periodically. Once or twice a month, for almost a year. Although he had no memory of the first two times it happened, he told me that starting with the third time, he could remember every minute of those nights he was taken.”

“Taken?” I said the word a little too loud.

She nodded her head once, slowly. “Yes. By dokkaebi.”

“What did he say the dokkaebi did with him?”

“He couldn’t say.”

“But you said he remembered.”

“I don’t mean he didn’t remember. I mean he couldn’t bring himself to tell me what the dokkaebi did to him.”

I let out a breath and rubbed my forehead. I poured one more round, and everyone drank, even my mother-in-law. In the two years, I’d known her, I’d never seen her drink more than one or two small glasses in a night before. We sat there for a little while in silence, my mind grappling with the possibilities.

Finally, my wife spoke up. “What happened to him? I don’t remember ever meeting him.”

“That’s because you never did.” My mother-in-law’s eyes turned to me. “He committed suicide long ago.”

 

It’s weird how the mind works, isn’t it? Because as freaked out as I was that night, as sure as I had been that I had a brain tumor or an encounter with a magical Korean goblin, the next day some part of my brain went to work trying to convince me that it was all nonsense. That there must be an explanation for the whole thing that I just wasn’t yet able to see.

So I chalked it up as one of those weird mysteries and went about my daily life. Wasn’t hard to do, considering my schedule. Not only was I teaching full-time at the language school and tutoring kids from low-income families pro bono, I’d recently started doing a master’s degree online for teaching English to speakers of other languages. With all that going on, it was surprisingly easy to put the dokkaebi out of my head. And one day after another passed with no memory problems, no missing time, no blue flames.

A week went by, and then another. Everything seemed fine and I felt much better.

Until one night, exactly three weeks after the first incident. I taught until 9 o’clock and then had a couple of beers with the other teachers. Just a few, though—it’s not like I was drunk.

While walking home, thinking about a paper I had to write for my sociolinguistics class, I suddenly saw it in the distance, on the side of a mountain a few hundred feet away.

A dancing blue flame.

I stopped in my tracks, my heartbeat picking up speed, my mouth going dry, sweat instantly breaking out.

Oh, Christ. Not again. Please, not again.

I watched for a few seconds. Out there in the Korean countryside, there isn’t so much light pollution and the night is really dark. The flame floated in a sphere of pale blue light.

A voice in my head told me to run. Take off and not look back. Yes, that was what I should do, I thought.

But my feet didn’t move. I stood there, transfixed, wanting to see what the flame did, maybe to get some idea what it was.

Then it started coming toward me.

Slowly at first. Kind of hovering and drifting in my general direction. Go, the voice in my head said. Why don’t you run? Get out of here!

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. With each second that passed, the flame grew more beautiful, more enthralling. I needed to get closer to it. The part of me that had been afraid faded into the background.

I walked toward it, and it floated toward me.

And the next thing I knew, I stood at the side of a road I didn’t even recognize in the darkness. I took out my phone and checked the time. 2:13 AM.

I’d lost over two hours.

 

The very next morning I went to the doctor to see if he could find anything wrong with me. They did some tests, but all the while a nagging question tickled the back of my mind. If it were a brain tumor, why would I have seen the same blue light both times? It wasn’t like some random hallucination. But the alternative explanation was that I’d twice encountered a dokkaebi, which was a little hard to swallow.

The medical tests came back clean. No tumor or anything else that could explain my memory gaps.

My wife was great during all this. Minhee never believed I had a brain tumor and she definitely thought the whole Korean goblin thing was stupid, but she was worried. She even started showing up at my school every night to walk home with me.

One night, though, she had a migraine and couldn’t come, so I had to walk home alone. It’s a twenty-minute trip, and as soon as I stepped out the door of my school, a pit of anxiety opened in my gut. The first five minutes of the walk involved going through “downtown” Gangha, which is just a handful of businesses and a smattering of houses, then the next fifteen minutes entailed following a thin, dark road that winds through the rice fields and mountains.

My eyes were huge the whole way, glancing here and there, and I held my phone in my hand to call for help if I needed to. I walked really fast, almost at a slow jog. And pretty soon, I could see our house in the distance, with the porch light on. I exhaled a sigh of relief.

But even as I told myself I was safe, something in the periphery of my vision pulled my attention to the mountain on my right.

A blue light.

I turned away immediately and started running. For a moment I fumbled to call my wife as I went, but then I thought it better to concentrate on running and booked it as hard as I could. I don’t think I’ve ever sprinted that fast before in my life.

With my chest burning and heaving, I made it to the house. Only then, feeling a bit safer, did I turn to see if the light had followed me.

It hovered over a rice field about a hundred feet away. I opened my mouth to shout to Minhee, but the light grew brighter and pulled my thoughts more strongly to it. The way the flame floated mesmerized me, and then I felt like there was something I had been going to do, something important, but I couldn’t remember what. And I didn’t really care.

My feet started shuffling toward the light. A peaceful calm washed over me, and the flame danced hypnotically in my direction.

Then everything went black.

 

I awoke naked, strapped to a cold, metal table in an oval-shaped room with smooth metal walls. My heart thudded in my ears and my eyes darted all over for some clue as to where I might be. The air felt thick and smelled odd. Humid and fishy. I glanced down at my restraints. They were thin, transparent bands, almost like plastic wrap, but no matter how hard I strained against them I couldn’t move an inch.

Just as I focused on my breathing, trying to keep myself from full-on hyperventilation, a sphincter-like door opened to my right.

What walked in was the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I froze, my mouth hanging open.

Its body consisted of a thin, veiny stalk that changed colors as I watched, from dark purple to red and then green. It seemed too thin for what it supported. At the top of the stalk, a fat translucent sack lolled almost obscenely, its thin membrane holding in some kind of liquid, like a half-filled water balloon. I could see and hear the liquid sloshing around inside as it moved, but couldn’t make out anything like a brain or organs. And the stalk moved by means of half a dozen tongue-like appendages at the base, stepping gingerly like spider legs.

As it neared me, I held my breath and closed my eyes, barely peeking out. One of the appendages stretched upward toward me, elongating as it lengthened. The seafood smell grew stronger, filling my nose. Every muscle in my body tensed in horror as the dark red tongue-like tentacle reached toward my face.

It touched my cheek, barely making contact at first, then flattened out and licked across my face, over my nose and mouth. I grimaced, squeezed my restrained fists and a frantic moan escaped my throat.

A sticky wet film that smelled like squid covered half my face and I fought to keep myself from throwing up. The creature brought the limb toward the top of its stalk, where I now noticed the skin looked different because it had a ring of dark bumps. The thing brought its tentacle to that ring and slowly slid the appendage there, wiping the part that had touched me over bumps. Its entire body shuddered, and an ugly sound between a gurgle and a moan emanated from it.

Was it tasting me? Smelling me?

Another tentacle reached out. It stuck a small, circular blue patch on my forearm. Then the thing uttered a choking sound and a second creature entered, this one smaller than the first. It held a wriggling brown puppy in two of its limbs. It put the puppy on the floor, and the dog whimpered, ran to the other side of the room and cowered up against a wall.

The creatures backed out through the door on those disgusting tongue-like things, trading guttural noises as they went. The sphincter closed and instantly my restraints dissolved into thin air as if they had been a dream.

I sat up and held my arm closer to my face, studying the patch. For a moment I tried to get a corner of it up with my fingernail and pull it off, but it wouldn’t budge. The puppy whimpered, and I turned to it.

“Hey, little guy. It’s okay.” I jumped off the table and went to the dog, squatted near it and pet the soft fur on its head. The puppy moved closer to me, pressing up against my ankles and wagging its tail.

A voice whispered from a dark corner of my mind. Kill it.

I stood and looked around as if I might find the source of the words, but even as I did it I knew it hadn’t come from anywhere out there. It had come from inside my own head.

Again I tried to remove the blue patch, this time more frantically, but it was stuck like glue.

A strange feeling washed over me, dizziness at first, followed by a marked sharpening of all my senses. As I looked around to the table and the dog, tiny details stood out in sharp relief, as if I had the vision of an eagle. At the same time, my ears picked up an orchestra of sounds in the room that I’d previously thought almost silent. The biological processes of both my body and the dog’s filled my ears. Hearts beating, lungs breathing and blood coursing. The dog’s nails clacking on the floor, his tail swishing through the air.

I could feel the air all over my skin as if every molecule of it were a little ball pressing against me. And the smells, my God. I could smell the metal of the room and the soap I’d washed with twenty hours ago and the burger I’d eaten for lunch and the dog’s breath and the fishy miasma those creatures left behind.

Kill it.

My limbs buzzed with an electrical hum, an energy like I’d never felt in my life. Strength surged through my muscles and bones, a feeling of power that told me I could rip through the walls if I tried to.

And the dog. The god damn dog. With its whiny cuteness. Stupid fucking animal. Kill it.

My lips pulled back over my teeth in a sneer. I bent over and picked up the puppy. Holding its little head between my hands as its four legs frantically kicked in the air, I crushed its skull as if it were an egg.

Its blood, bone, and brains squished through the cracks between my fingers as its legs went limp and dangled lifelessly. My chest heaved as I dropped it to the floor and scanned the room, eager to kill something else. Anything else.

But I smelled bitter chemicals in the air and noticed that some kind of gas was wafting into the room through tiny slits in the wall that I was sure hadn’t been there before. My vision narrowed, tightening into a tunnel, and the last thing I remember was falling to the floor.

I came to in the dark, sitting on the edge of a road near home, facing a peaceful, quiet, moonlit field of rice. I put my face in my hands and cried.

 

When I walked in our front door, Minhee was waiting. For all her previous skepticism, she now obviously saw something terribly wrong was going on. She ran to me, hugged me hard and then looked into my eyes.

“Adam, where were you? What happened? Have you been crying?”

I avoided her gaze and turned my face away. Unable to find any words, I shook my head.

“You can talk to me. What’s going on?”

I knew she was just worried. But what could I possibly say?

I shook my head again and pushed past her and headed for the fridge. I popped a Cass beer, drank the whole thing in one go and leaned against the counter, running my fingers through my hair. Minhee stood nearby and knowing her so well, I could almost feel the battle in her mind between the part of her that wanted to grill me and another part that wanted to give me room.

Finally, I said, “Give me a little time, okay? I’m sorry. I just…I can’t.” She nodded wordlessly and watched me grab two more beers, go into our bedroom and shut the door behind me. I cracked the next can and drank almost half of it, then dropped down on the floor next to my bed.

My mind felt like frozen lead, shut down as an emergency defense mechanism. But I had to face it the truth squarely and honestly.

Dokkaebi.

They weren’t goblins. Weren’t some magical tricksters, myths or supernatural beings.

The whole thing sure seemed a hell of a lot like an alien abduction. Experimentation on humans.

God only knows what they’re after, why they turned me into a monster or how I’m supposed to go on living like this.

 

I guess after that I followed the pattern of my mother-in-law’s cousin pretty closely. Couldn’t get myself to go to work. Got fired. Couldn’t even think about my online master’s classes. Dropped out.

Drank a lot, slept a lot. Talked very little. Almost never left the house. Sure as hell not alone, and never at night.

My poor wife. She tried to stand by me, tried to help any way she could. Even though I wouldn’t tell her what was going on, she stayed and patiently waited for me to come around. The woman was a saint.

It went on like this for almost a month. Yet after that, some small voice in my head again started trying to convince me I’d imagined it. Had some kind of hallucination, dream or maybe mental illness. That it had never been real.

Until one night when I lay in bed at 3 AM, staring out the window at the moon and listening to the rhythm of Minhee’s breathing as she slept.

And I saw a dancing blue flame outside.

For a few seconds panic overtook me, sending my pulse racing, but then that hypnotic calm washed through my mind and my body automatically rose, went out the front door and toward the flame.

I awoke later in the same room I’d been in with the puppy. The table, the restraints, the blue patch on my arm, the creature with the stalk-like body, disgusting liquid-filled sack head, and spidery tentacle legs. But this time, the second creature didn’t bring in a dog.

It brought in an old woman. A wrinkled Korean grandmother, bent over with age, shaking and crying. Muttering to herself in Korean as she scuttled to the wall and tried to hide in the cornerless room, just as the puppy had done.

I lied to her in Korean. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.”

My restraints dissolved. A voice rang in my skull, louder than any other thoughts. Kill her. My senses sharpened, my strength quadrupled and bloodlust overwhelmed the rational parts of my brain.

She cowered, closed her eyes and muttered a prayer.

I rose and my feet brought me toward her, a blinding red rage burning in my chest.

 

I can’t say more about that night. There are no words.

That was the most horrible experience of my life until then. And yet, it would get worse. So much worse.

Two weeks passed before I saw the blue flame again. Two weeks I spent in a stupor. And then I found myself in the oval-shaped room once more.

Everything proceeded as before. Except for this time—God help me. This time, it wasn’t a puppy. Or a stranger.

This time, after that evil son of a bitch stuck the patch on me, I turned to see what the second creature would bring in.

And when I saw the other test subject in the experiment, I squeezed my eyes shut and moaned as tears rolled down my cheeks, “No, please God, please.”

I opened them again and looked into the wide, horrified eyes of my wife.

Kevin Stadt

 

Kevin Stadt is an English teacher with a master’s degree in teaching writing and a doctorate in American literature. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Aether and Ichor, Bewildering Stories, Enter the Aftermath, Fiction on the Web, Issues of Tomorrow, Kzine, Lazarus Risen, Nebula Rift, Phantaxis and Under the Bed. Although he hails from a small town in Illinois, he now lives in South Korea with his wife and sons, who are interdimensional cyborg pirates wanted in a dozen star systems.

 

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