Road 436 has no cameras and almost no traffic. There are only a few signs here and there that say "Caution: Wildlife Crossing." Several years ago, after two tunnels were built nearby, Road 436 grew quiet. Barring holidays, cars rarely come through. On an afternoon with rain falling like April cherry blossoms, a man's truck sped by. Three kilometers away from the motel, all vehicles on the road had the same destination.
The unmanned motel towered high in the hills, the only landmark visible from the road. As soon as the building came into view on the left, the man turned the steering wheel widely with one hand and unbuckled his seatbelt with the other. Next, he pressed down on the power button of his incessantly ringing phone. The cheerful ringtone died. From every direction, silence.
The underground parking lot was filled with dusty cars. He had never spent the night at the motel, but every time he visited he had to scour the lot to find a place to park. There was a reason why people came to such an isolated place. Motels were like casinos in that they were hard to leave. After finally finding an empty spot and parking, he pulled a box out of the bed of his truck and went inside.
The hallway floor was moving like a conveyor belt. Vending machines flowed by slowly like conveyor belt sushi. The floor rotated as relentlessly as the Earth orbited—snow or rain, guests or [End Page 179] not, it never stopped. If you were a guest here, all you had to do was open the door to your room, come outside, and wait for a vending machine you liked to pass by. You just opened your door, and faceless kiosks abounded. You didn't have to leave the building to buy what you needed. Each floor was plastered with advertisements stating that the conveyor belt was ready to cater to customers' every desire. The man stood in front, watching a familiar vending machine go by, then quickly climbed aboard the conveyor belt. Fantastic Love. It was a party supply vending machine he'd installed in this motel six months earlier.
Every sort of party imaginable was possible in the motel. If you wanted balloons, they were there; the same for bubbles, ropes, and garter belts. Because of this, the vending machine was filled with all sorts of things that didn't seem to go together. But it wasn't a problem. When you pressed the button for "balloon" or "garter belt" or whatever else you wanted, the object specified was the only thing that would emerge.
The man placed the box at his side and opened the vending machine. Bills and coins for the goods sold were waiting for him in one corner. He liked the way vending machines would spit out change if given too much money, and how they indicated sold-out items with the words "out of stock." Filling that space between where the money went in and the product came out made him feel like his life was in order. To him, Fantastic Love was a party in itself. He put the balloons, firecrackers, and ropes in their respective compartments, and then closed the door. Fantastic Love was splendid once again.
Since installing Fantastic Love in the motel, he had gotten rid of a few other vending machines he'd set up around the city. Unlike those other machines, which were always backlogged with inventory and just ran up the electricity bill, Fantastic Love was quite profitable. He had been able to pre-order several months of party supplies thanks to its proven sales record. His plan was to buy two more machines in the spring. When he left the motel after polishing the outside of Fantastic Love until it shone, the world [End Page 180] was covered in snow. It had piled up in just an hour and a half. He looked at his watch. Five p.m. Time to return to the city.
He got into his truck and pulled the seat forward. The slope leading back down to Road 436 was slippery. The sun had suddenly set, and in the meantime the ground had frozen. As soon as he turned his phone on again, a barrage of text messages poured in. He turned it off. He was definitely waiting for something, but this wasn't it. Maybe if more snow fell, it would be an excuse not to go back, he thought. It was just a fleeting thought, but as if triggered by it, wind-driven snow began to batter the door.
There was only one room left at the motel, which made him feel even more certain that he was destined to spend the night there. The price for a room was 100,000 wŏn. He inserted his credit card into the automated rental machine, but in vain. He'd exceeded the card's limit this month buying the products he'd placed in Fantastic Love. There wasn't much cash left in his wallet, but Fantastic Love's profits were ample. Pooling the cash he had, he inserted 100,000 wŏn into the slot, and a card key slid out immediately.
In the morning, the room was filled with traces of his purchases from the night before. Food containers, empty and white, scattered beer cans, cigarette butts, a sports newspaper … all from the conveyor belt traveling round and round in the hallway. He stretched his limbs as he looked up at the ceiling, seemingly twice as high as a regular room's, and down at its king-sized bed. He felt his bones and muscles growing to fit such a big space.
Outside the window all was snow. News anchors on the TV rambled on and on about unprecedented snowstorms all over the country. But from atop such a plush bed, the snow looked as calm as the pattern on a curtain or wallpaper. It was kind of like packing foam, he thought. A white buffer surrounding the motel, that's what the snow was.
Whenever there was a snowstorm, the demand for Fantastic Love increased. Overnight, the number of balloons and butterfly masks had diminished by more than half. Fifty balloons, fifty [End Page 181] butterfly masks—numbers as surprising as the snow itself. He hurriedly descended to the parking garage and pulled a box from his truck to refill the machine. As he restocked Fantastic Love, he pocketed the cash from the products that had sold. At this rate, maybe he'd be able to put in a second Fantastic Love before spring. He returned to his truck and whistled as he climbed in. The news said another bout of snow would hit starting in the afternoon. The truck started up with a beastly groan. The radio signal wasn't good, but a cheerful tune was still audible through the static. The truck carefully descended the snowy slope. When he rolled down the window, a harsh windy howl intermingled with the radio tune.
But at some point, all sound stopped—and not just sound. The road that was supposed to be at the bottom of the slope simply wasn't there. Everything was pure white. Road 436 was lost in the snow, the distinction between pavement and non-pavement gone. He slowly depressed the brake, and the truck began to slide as fast as balloons and butterfly masks had slid out of Fantastic Love. Its four wheels and headlights were enveloped by a wave of white as it dove into the snow. The truck stopped. Even if it had been able to move, the road had already disappeared.
This was truly a snowstorm of snowstorms, the likes of which he hadn't seen since his military days. He was stranded more than thirty minutes from anywhere, on a road devoid not only of vehicles, but also of people and animals. The cell phone that had been ringing so furiously couldn't even send or receive text messages now. Snow poured onto the sunken truck as if to bury all evidence of its existence. He left the truck where it was and walked back to the motel, slipping several times along the way. The waist-high snow became shallower closer to the building, and by the time he reached the entrance, it was only underfoot. Whoever had shoveled the snow so thoroughly had to be somewhere inside, but he waited and waited for that person to no avail. The pay phone in the lobby was, of course, dead. Exactly one room left. There was no other choice. [End Page 182]
The snow continued for a week. The news described it as an "unimaginable snowstorm." The clouds moved around in stagnant circles, and there were snow-ins all over the place. The road froze; the roof of a house caved in from the weight of the snow. The river, the city's lifeline, froze solid. Birds taxidermied in white were found here and there along its course. The flurries gradually became stronger. Thin-branched trees bent sharply wherever the snow pummeled them.
Just as the news had warned, everything outside was the same color. The color of snow. In all that monochrome, the only place even somewhat interesting was the hallway. All you had to do was open your door and climb onto the conveyor belt, and an eye-dazzlingly fantastic world unfolded. There was nothing that wasn't there. The man had been able to stay at the motel for over a week only because of these vending machines gliding by on the conveyor belt. His Fantastic Love was, of course, selling products left and right, what with all the snow. He jotted down the names of items that had lit up in random order. Two boxes of firecrackers, one box each of handcuffs and garter belts, half a box each of balloons and butterfly masks. He cheerfully descended the snow-covered path to the main road, indifferent to his shoes getting muddy and sludgy water flecking the cuffs of his pants. Venturing through the drifts of fluffy popcorn snow was as exciting as sledding. He picked out some dry boxes from his truck stuck in the road and carried them back up. He may have been stranded, but at least he was working, and as long as he had money there was no reason he couldn't survive here. Money from the goods he'd sold paid for each day's lodging and meals. Of course, he couldn't stay in a room with ceilings twice as high as normal as he had on the first night. That would be a luxury and a waste. Thankfully, slightly more reasonably priced rooms began to open up, and even under a regular-height or low ceiling he slept well.
He discovered an intercom between the hall vending machines one afternoon when a quiet snowfall was again [End Page 183] beginning to intensify. The intercom emitted a long, bored dial tone as the storm raged outside.
"For guest inquiries, press one; for vending machine inquiries, press two; for service questions, press three; for parking, press four; and for all other questions, press zero."
He thought for a moment, and then pressed zero.
"The volume of calls is currently high and your call cannot be connected. Please leave your information after the beep and a representative will contact you. Bee—."
"Hello, I manage the Fantastic Love. There's a lot of broken equipment in the motel. The pay phone's dead, my cell phone doesn't get a signal, and my truck broke down, too, so I'm stuck here. If you could please get in touch and send an employee over. …"
Several days had passed since he left the message. The longer he stayed at the motel, the more unfamiliar it became. He didn't know how many rooms were on each floor or even how many floors the building had. He also had no idea how many kinds of vending machines there were. It seemed like the rooms should be completely full because of the snowstorm, but he hadn't yet seen a single person in the motel. The uncountable array of vending machines was in stark contrast to the absence of people. This array was also why he had already run out of cash.
He charged his cell phone every day inside a charging kiosk. He would peek at the LCD screen at five-minute intervals. When it looked like the signal antenna had grown longer, he'd try pressing the call button. Recently, he'd been hanging around in front of Fantastic Love more often, watching the news on the hall TV. The simple action soothed his anxiety, and he didn't really have anything to do other than check on Fantastic Love and look at his phone, anyway. Fantastic Love was getting empty. As the inventory boxes in his truck bed decreased, so did the ceiling height of the rooms he stayed in. He'd slowly begun to choose cheaper and cheaper rooms, and price and ceiling height were correlated. [End Page 184]
When the whips and ropes sold out, he was down to his last box. The bottom of the box had turned mushy with snow, but it couldn't be helped. The next day, several more items sold out, but there was nothing to replace them with. Thirty days of snow, and an inventory that had been meant to last months was already gone. No profit remained in his pockets.
In this place abandoned by the sun, the motel froze without even a shadow. When it was time to check out, all noise in the room stopped and the door opened automatically. The room's floor heating cooled instantaneously to a chill. The door opened and he emerged. The conveyor belt in the hall was moving at the same speed as always. It flowed forward as smoothly as an iron, an iron that flattened all noise from the floors above and below. If you stood in the hallway, all you could hear was the vibration of the conveyor belt, no matter how hard you listened. There had certainly been a time when that stillness had made him feel peaceful, but now it was unwelcome. He hurried into the elevator, but as soon as he left the building, he realized he had no idea where he should go. The snow was lashing down like a whip.
"For guest inquiries, press one; for vending machine inquiries, press two; for service questions … for all other. … The volume ofcalls is currently high and your call cannot be connected. Please leave your information after the beep and a representative will contact you. Bee—."
After the call ended, unavailable for the usual reason, a deep sense of quiet set in again. He'd made this call several days in a row, so it wasn't the first time this had happened. But what was different now was that Fantastic Love was completely empty, any cash from it already gone. He quietly pulled himself together. The voice on the intercom, those vending machines moving endlessly at the same speed—weren't they all calm? He hid the excitement and irritation he felt in his throat and exhaled evenly. Strangely, the more aloof he felt from the voice on the phone, the friendlier that [End Page 185] voice became. Whenever he let down his guard, though, even for just a moment, the voice would immediately cool into icy hostility. After taking a deep breath, he decided he'd try being a customer rather than the manager of Fantastic Love, and pretend to have a complaint. He pressed two and was connected with a representative all too easily.
"This is about Fantastic Love. It's out of merchandise, which is very inconvenient. Contact the manager and fill it up again soon, please. And because of the snowstorm. …"
"Yes, sir. You're calling about the Fantastic Love outage? We'll contact the manager as soon as we can. Can I help you with anything else?"
"Yes, the storm here is really severe, so the road is blocked and I can't. …"
"Sir, I'm sorry, but questions about anything other than the vending machines go through our automated message system, so can you try our other number? I'll let someone know about your important question. Have a nice day."
The phone disconnected with a series of cacophonous beeps. The man couldn't put the receiver down so quickly after yet another failed call, so he turned round and round on the conveyor belt alongside the intercom. It was at that moment that he discovered a new vending machine. It was the same shape as an ATM, but it wasn't an ATM, strictly speaking. It was a machine that would let you take out a loan using your ID, perhaps something between an ATM and those machines that dispensed documents in government offices. He looked at it carefully.
1. Place ID card in slot.
2. After credit evaluation, withdrawal amount will be displayed on screen. Allowable withdrawal amount varies with individual credit score.
3. Press one-day personal information transfer button and ID and cash will be released. [End Page 186]
4. Limit of one withdrawal per day.
5. May not use ID card for twenty-four hours after money withdrawal.
A machine that read your ID card and gave you cash! It took your identity as collateral before dispensing the money. For now, he passed it by. Over the past few days it felt like he'd become a stoplight in the game Red Light, Green Light—whenever he called "red light" and looked behind, it would seem like somebody had moved, but everyone feigned ignorance. Invalid credit card, empty wallet, closed road, immovable truck, and Fantastic Love near death from starvation. He fiddled under his chin with his left hand. His beard was bushy. Considering that this place only took cash, there was no way he could stay in the motel any longer. Of course, he couldn't leave either. At least not as long as snow was falling.
He turned back. Thankfully the loan machine hadn't gone too far yet and was still nearby. He didn't know why it required him to insert his ID, but even if it didn't return the card, he could always apply for a new one. He put his ID into the machine. After a moment, it came back out with 300,000 wŏn. The man stole a glance at the hallway CCTV. While he'd had his eyes closed as the stoplight, others must have been accomplices in the strange doings at this motel.
He chose a room 10,000 wŏn cheaper than the night before, and it was proportionally smaller. It wasn't just narrow—the ceiling was low, too, and the window and door were comparably small. The room was about two-thirds the size of a normal room from floor to ceiling, the same as his height. Strangely enough, before the storm—before he had spent the night here—he hadn't realized that room height differed on each floor. But as the rooms became cheaper, their ceilings came closer and closer to his head.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
Someone knocked on his door while he was sleeping. He got up drowsily and looked through the peephole. He didn't open [End Page 187] the door. Through the circle of glass, each end of the hallway was warped. The peephole gave anyone looking through it the odd feeling that he or she was being watched.
Startled to alertness by the voice, he opened the door, but no one was outside. He went back in his room. Moments later, an envelope flitted in through the crack under the door. In the envelope was a photo of the man's truck, as accusatory as a police sketch. Parking violation, sixty thousand wŏn fine. The truck was being ticketed in the very spot where it had been trapped until a few days ago. Really, parking tickets, here? Where everything was so covered in snow that you couldn't even tell the difference between road and sidewalk, asphalt and dirt? Anyhow, maybe this was a good sign. Did it mean that the road was cleared now? He looked at the bill for a long time, then abruptly went back to the door, and turned the handle to open it. But all he saw in the hallway was stillness, the CCTV looking at him with a vacant lens.
"Freeways, airports, and rail lines have been brought to a standstill, and now suicide attempts are occurring one after another in areas that have been cut off by the snowstorm. Last night, the body of an unidentified guest was found in one motel in Gangwon Province. According to the police, no foul play is suspected."
The news was on twenty-four hours a day, but it was too depressing. He changed channels.
"A plastic container filled with potassium cyanide and a bottle of alcohol were discovered inside the room. Because no ID card was found, police are holding off from. …"
He tried to change the channel once more, but the TV continued to broadcast the same story. There was no signal from any other station. He gave the screen a piercing stare. The image he saw was all too familiar. He looked around, and then turned toward the screen before looking around again. Red bedding, a bare sort of appearance, the same windows and curtain color, slightly low ceiling, forest green wallpaper. The only thing he [End Page 188] didn't see on the screen was his own uneasiness. It doesn't matter where you go, motels all look the same, he said to himself, as his chopsticks reached for nothingness. His insides felt uneasy. A dry belch rose from the bottom of his throat.
Early in the morning, he went down to his truck, but couldn't find it. There was a lot less snow on the road, and it seemed like removal operations were progressing somewhat. Maybe the truck had been towed. He had a nervous sense that he'd been misled in some strange way, as if a garter belt had come out when he'd pressed the button for a balloon, or a whip when he'd wanted firecrackers. He glanced at his phone again. The antenna symbol on his phone screen was short, showing a weak connection that wasn't getting any stronger. When he went back up to the motel, clutching his cell phone tightly, for some reason there was an ID photo machine where Fantastic Love was supposed to be. The order of the vending machines had gotten all mixed up just a few days since he'd last seen them. He walked round and round the motel and went up and down, to every floor, but he didn't see Fantastic Love anywhere. There were no direction signs in the building, and it was impossible to figure out the layout no matter how far you walked.
"Get your photos, get your photos!"
At some point, the photo machine moved in front of him again. It had a cheerful advertising ditty, but for some reason the device looked like it took funerary portraits rather than ID photos. His legs trembled even though he was sure that wasn't the case. His vending machine was gone, only a day after being sold out. He turned toward the CCTV. If there was a god, it had to be inside that lens, right? He wanted to believe in something, but nothing would take hold. Finally, when he had waited all afternoon, the intercom looped in front of him again. He grabbed the receiver tightly with both hands. Its signal went out to an unknown recipient and connected with a mosquito sound. After a long while, someone picked up. [End Page 189]
"I'm sorry, sir, we don't have a machine by that name in our motel."
"What do you mean? It was definitely here yesterday!"
"Sir, are you talking about the party supply machine? Ah, yes, sir, that machine was taken out of service yesterday, and three new upgraded party supply machines were brought into the motel. You can start using them today."
He fell to his knees in spite of himself. His legs had buckled.
"Look, I was the manager of Fantastic Love. I was—ugh! Do you really think it's okay to deal with this so haphazardly? What? Insufficient stock? Look, it's barely been a day. I'm saying it's barely been a day since everything sold out. And don't you have to tell me when you throw a machine out? Do you even know where I am right now?"
"We called you several times, sir, but because your phone was turned off, we had to remove it on our own. The machine is being stored near the back door of the motel—we kept trying to contact you to tell you this. If you pick up the machine within three days, you won't be fined."
"Uh, okay. Please give me the manager."
"If you leave a message, I can let the manager know."
"Give me the manager now!"
"Sir, I want to help you. According to our policy, if you leave a message, we'll give you a call back."
He threw the receiver into the empty air, but the only thing it shattered was the air itself. After a moment, he regretted hanging up first. The intercom phone was already buried between vending machines, and he couldn't see where it had gone. It seemed like the messages he was leaving for motel management were vanishing into the phone, because there was never any response. Parking ticket reminders continued to infiltrate his room.
He walked to the back door of the motel. His legs felt weak. Even before he saw Fantastic Love, he was ready to collapse. He may have only lost the contract for one of his vending machines, [End Page 190] but it was more than that: he no longer had the ability to explain himself. He kept thinking about what the person on the phone had said, about picking up the vending machine within three days. What were they really telling him to pick up—what? The moment he saw neglected Fantastic Love, thrown out and unplugged, he knew. His identity was in that rectangular lump of metal.
Fantastic Love had a broken spring, and a single rope that hadn't been dispensed because it was rolled around inside the machine. After pulling out the rope, he carefully repaired the spring. It barely took five minutes to fix, but even after the coil had regained its elasticity, there was nothing but wind to fill the vending machine.
Night fell, and the loan machine began to appear in front of him more and more often. He helplessly inserted his ID card. The room he was staying in now was only half as high as a regular room, so it was impossible to stand up straight. Inside, he had to bend everything. His knees, his head, his spine. The ceiling, ever-lower as the rooms became cheaper, was now lower than his height.
As the ceilings grew lower and the number of guests increased by floor, the decrease in ceiling height started to become even more extreme. If the height difference between a 100,000 wŏn room and a 90,000 wŏn room was worth exactly 10,000 wŏn, then the difference between a 90,000 wŏn room and an 80,000 wŏn room was worth a lot more. As the room price decreased, changes in things like the space between floor and ceiling, window size, and door height grew steadily greater.
His ID card was becoming less and less valuable. Yet the fines he had to pay multiplied with the overdue charges assessed. The truck and Fantastic Love—everything he'd owned—had become a mountain of debt. Recently, when he'd inserted his ID card, only 10,000 wŏn had come out. And one day, when he inserted his card, his information wasn't accepted.
He wasn't sure if what had exceeded the limits was his card or his life. That night, unable to pay for a room or food, he decided [End Page 191] to leave the motel. Fantastic Love may have been emptied of all its contents, but its frame was heavy. He set it on the snow-covered ground like a tombstone and left it behind as he descended the slope, in knee-high snow. After walking a certain distance, he could see Road 436 below. In one spot, the snow was mounded up. Inside the pile was his truck. It was definitely his. Seeing this thing that had been invisible until just a few days before unnerved him more than anything else. Just as the road wasn't really a road anymore, neither was the truck a truck. Covered in snow, it couldn't carry passengers—it couldn't even move on its own. It was just a lump of scrap iron. He took huge steps, one by one, over the snow. He planned to keep going until exhausted, but it turned out that direction was a lot more important than physical strength.
He walked and walked, but kept going in circles. Then, at some point, something abandoned in the snow caught his eye. He slowly approached. It was an elderly person. There were traces of dried blood on the snowy ground, as if the person had fallen long ago. Had he or she been hit by a car? Or maybe fallen from somewhere else? He hesitated a moment, wondering if the person was dead or alive, before hoisting the body onto his back. Even through his thick winter clothes, he could feel warmth radiating from it.
Snow pelted the ground furiously. The only bright thing in sight was light spurting from the motel on the hill, sprinkling the dark road with brightness, like a lighthouse beam. Finally he decided to follow the light. Moving faster than ever, though his body sank deep into the snow, he ran without stopping. When he arrived, his back was on fire, but the motel in its sluggish silence had never felt so cold. He left the body outside and then ran down the hallway faster than the conveyor belt, calling for help, but not a single door among endless rooms opened. His voice was muffled by the sounds of the conveyor belt moving horizontally and the elevator moving vertically, the sounds of bills entering vending machine slots and items exiting. The red light of the fire alarm on the wall blinked like an emergency exit. He grabbed [End Page 192] a decorative flower vase and struck the glass casing. The alarm was a metronome for his flight up the emergency staircase. The fire alarm on the next floor exploded into a similar song. On the next floor, too, and the next, the rhythm of the fire alarms going off dictated his own rhythm. The stairs under his nimble feet alternated white, then black, then white, like piano keys. Before his performance reached the roof, everything inside the motel stopped. The conveyor belt, the elevator, the vending machines, and the silence, too.
The whole time he'd been shattering the alarm's glass, he hadn't run into a single person, hadn't seen the gleam of a single pair of eyes. But the CCTV recording on each floor was also a kind of eye, even if he didn't know it. The CCTV first captured the man as he broke the glass. As sirens went off, the camera turned to surveil the guests pouring out of their rooms en masse like a tide. The people who rushed out of their rooms and the building were relieved that there was no fire, but at the same time they seemed annoyed that they'd all been brought together by a false alarm.
"A person's—been hit—by a car. Down there."
The man's breath was ragged as he spoke. To the others, his motions looked like a blazing fire, too rapid to comprehend.
"I just, I picked this person up on the road, and brought them here. An ambulance, quick."
What appeared instead of an ambulance was the motel manager. He was wearing a uniform and looked as cool as could be.
"Did you break the fire alarm panels?"
A cracked piece of vase fell from the man's hand. He had thought that the fire alarms would be interpreted as a call for help—a distress signal in the empty wilderness of this motel—but it looked like the others didn't feel the same way. He explained that there had been no other way to bring everyone together. As soon as he finished speaking, someone said,
"So, what's the matter?" [End Page 193]
"Someone fell on the road. I'm talking about this person here."
As soon as the man indicated the fallen person by his side, every face wore the same expression. Judging from the way they were looking at him, it was clear that he was going to be on his own.
"How'd he hit such an old thing?" someone asked.
The person next to him shook her head, and someone else clucked his tongue as he headed back into the motel. The person standing closest to the man looked at him and spoke.
"That road's always gotten a lot of wild animals. Isn't that why it's a wildlife crossing zone?"
The man looked down at the old person again. He couldn't see anything odd, but the other guests saw fur and a tail and claws. They all glared viciously at him. He looked down at the person again and again. No shoes, thick toenails—and was that fur actually part of a human body? In a second, this elderly person had become the most unfamiliar creature on Earth. And the man was more of a laughingstock than ever.
"You'll have to take responsibility for the disturbance you've caused. And get rid of the body of that animal somehow—put it back on the road, or bury it, or burn it. If you just throw it out near the motel, it'll be an eyesore, and we'll have to fine you."
Uniform handed the man a hastily written fine as he spoke. The man took the note and immediately crumpled it. Uniform quickly wrote down another.
"Call the police. I'll pay for everything. Just call someone."
"That's not my job. Ask about it on the intercom."
Uniform finished speaking and turned away before looking back.
"And anyway, think about the weather—think about it. If you were a policeman, would you be able to get here? In this snowstorm, really?"
By ones and twos, people returned to the motel, to their floors, to their rooms, to their beds. Once the crowd dispersed, there were only two people left. The man, and a woman who was [End Page 194] looking at him. They stared at each other for a long time. They both had a strange appearance. They were severely hunchbacked, and their gazes were uneasy. Almost everything around them melded into the snowy background, which made them stand out even more. As the others squeezed back into the motel's silence, these stragglers couldn't bring themselves to follow the crowd. Now alone, they were able to recognize each other as outsiders. When the man picked up the possible animal–possible human and began to move it, the woman came up to him and lifted it from the other side. The two silently put it inside Fantastic Love. With all its items sold out, the only thing that would emerge if you inserted money was this miserable corpse. Snow flurries were starting to fall again on Fantastic Love. At that moment, the man stared at the woman again. The woman was the only person he had met at the motel.
The man and the woman decided to share a room, to cut costs. From floor to ceiling, this room was barely one-third the height of a regular room, so if you stretched your back, you couldn't sit up straight. The woman, her back hunched, held her hand out to the man and spoke.
"One thousand wŏn for ten minutes. I can sing, I can dance. I can have a conversation."
The man didn't really understand what she was saying, but he pulled out 1,000 wŏn and gave it to the woman. She clasped it in her hands.
"I'm a machine, so press a button. Singing, dancing, conversation—what do you want?"
"Uh … can we talk? So, a conversation."
The woman nodded.
"When did you get here?"
"About two months ago? It could be longer."
"Why did you come?"
After the man asked this, he added onto his question. [End Page 195]
"I guess I'm wondering if you maybe wanted to leave but haven't been able to."
The woman responded, "That's half true." The man leaned toward her.
"Explain a little more specifically. You're the only person in this place that I've been able to talk to, you know."
The woman drew up her knees and covered them with her arms. She buried her head in her lap and after a moment began to speak.
"It was the night of the performance after-party. The day we tore down the set. I only had a bit part in the play, but even so, as we drank I kept thinking that I wanted to go back on stage. Not because I loved my role but because I disliked the party. I must have seemed really remote to everyone else there. I don't know when I started feeling that way, but mingling with people after the performance had ended, exchanging lines without a script—it was kind of a burden. So finally at two in the morning I grabbed my bag and stood up.
"At that moment, one of the older cast members spoke. Hey, have another drink and just sleep over at my place. She had played the female protagonist. I insisted that I had to go home, but she wouldn't have it. It's past two, there won't be a later bus. Then just come with me. Who goes home early on a night like this? I have to go home. So do the rest of us. You're the only one with a family? We all have families. Finally I spoke up. No, it's because I have to change my panties! Upon hearing those words, the older cast member froze. The party suddenly became awkward. No matter what I said, I was always able to create an uncomfortable situation. But when I'd spoken at that moment, I truly felt like I needed to change my panties before dawn. And I didn't want to go to the protagonist's house just to become some temporary prop for her to collect. When I got my bag and was about to leave, the woman said something behind my back. Like she was improvising or something. Hey, I have a lot of new panties at my house! I ran away blindly. It felt like she and her new panties [End Page 196] were chasing me. I knew how the conversation about me back at the bar would go. My fellow cast members would be saying, 'What the heck?' and, 'She's definitely the kind of person who would do that sort of thing.' And then, just as quickly, they'd move on to talk about something else. Taxis zipped by on the road. Sort of like, they, well, like they were erasers erasing everything on the road, they were going like that. I hailed an eraser. And I shouted."
The woman's story suddenly stopped.
"What did you shout?"
"It's been ten minutes. My lips are sealed."
The man rummaged through his bag for coins and found 1,000 more wŏn. He held it out to the woman, and the story resumed.
"I don't remember what I shouted. I wasn't even that drunk, but when I opened my eyes I was already in a room here, and I vaguely remembered the taxi dropping me off in front of the motel the night before."
The man remembered his own first night. That night, when all he'd had to do was open his door to find everything he could need stocked in the full vending machines, he couldn't have imagined staying this long.
"Was snow falling?"
"Well, the first few days were so good that I just stayed inside this room, so I don't actually know if it snowed or not."
"Did you buy something from the vending machines?"
"Yeah. When I opened the door and went out into the hallway, I was surprised to see how many vending machines there were. It's like a display window out there. What really startled me, though, weren't the vending machines, but the fact that the layout of the building was all too familiar to me. It looked like the backdrop of a stage I'd once performed on. I didn't know how I'd re-entered the play, but I realized that here at least I wouldn't have a minor role. I always played minor roles, you know. An underwear vending machine came by, and I selected a pair of 3,000 wŏn cotton [End Page 197] panties. With that pair of panties, my part changed. I was now the main character. I needed a fresh start. I knew the stage, and I had no audience, no one to say anything to me. Thinking those thoughts made me happy."
The motel, marooned by the snowstorm, was the audience-free set the woman had always dreamed of. She said that she'd never played a starring role until now, not even once. The one time that she'd gotten a supporting role to the main actress, she'd made a mistake. She had said the lines for another part. A mistake that she hadn't made during reading practice or rehearsal, but there, right on stage, she faltered. The lines that she had blurted out were what the main character was supposed to say seconds later. Something that could easily be edited out in a TV show or movie, but not here, because this was a play. Her mistake had trickled down to the audience. There, it rode on the ensuing waves of confusion before snaking back up to her onstage. The protagonist had handled the situation by improvising lines that weren't in the script. But the woman couldn't do anything, couldn't say lines that were in the script or lines that weren't, and she just stood there. After that day, the woman found it hard to look her coworkers in the eye, or even to have an audience in front of her.
"Did you know that motels have trends, too? When balloons were popular, I would circle the hallways carrying a balloon. Sometimes couples would call me over and ask me to sing a song. One thousand wŏn for ten minutes. Back then, I did it for more, too. I made good money. After that, butterfly masks were a trend. When I wore one and danced, everyone loved it—ajussis and ajummas. Sometimes if there wasn't anyone in the hallway, I'd light a firecracker to let them know where I was. Since I was wearing a garter belt and holding a whip, business was a little better than it would have been otherwise—by the way, can you hear what I'm saying?"
The man nodded.
"Strange. For a while now, no one in this place has been able to understand me." [End Page 198]
The woman had been beaten once before her ten-minute song ended. A customer had struck her as if she were a vending machine that had taken his money and delivered nothing in return. He said the woman's song sounded like static.
"I had no money, so I couldn't go back to a room, and as I circled round and round the hallways, I thought that maybe someone could take me to theirs. But no one would look at me."
The woman was one machine of many going down the conveyor belt, and just as no one asks for cola from a coffee machine, no one asks a machine selling performances to sell her body. What the woman really had to worry about wasn't leering customers, but a lack of them.
"I was forced to suspend my business," she said. "You can't keep an unprofitable vending machine for long. So I had to quit. I realized then that this place wasn't a stage, it was reality, and reality wasn't dictated by a script. A play was just an hour or so, but I had been going on for who knows how long."
"Those props you used, like the butterfly mask. Do you still have them?" the man asked. The woman pulled a bag from a corner. Out of it came a firecracker, a butterfly mask, an uninflated balloon, a whip, and a garter belt. The only thing she hadn't gotten was a rope. When she went to buy one—any kind, thick or thin—they were already all sold out. The inside of the woman's bag was a sort of second Fantastic Love. The man looked at the fossil-like butterfly mask, whip, and other items for a long time.
The woman stopped telling her story. The stage may not have needed a heater, but real life did. There, she'd been illuminated whenever the lights hit her, but now she had to turn the lights on and off by herself when she needed them. There were good acoustics in the theater, but not here. And when she had performed in the past, she had acted in a room with an audience, but here the CCTV recording in the hallway was all there was. This wasn't theater after all, but reality, a tragedy in which she'd thought her entire life was a play. When the man started to root around in his [End Page 199] pocket again, the woman held out the 2,000 wŏn she had received just a little while ago.
"Today, let's just say I bought time from you."
To be more accurate, they both had bought time from each other. The man lay on the bed. The ceiling was low, so it felt stuffy. The room was seventy centimeters high, and the mattress was thirty centimeters above the ground. As he lay down, his nose almost touched the plaster above. The woman turned off the lights. Under the cover of darkness, it was difficult to judge how much space there was. The room expanded in the blackness. If you turned the light off and closed your eyes, the ceiling, one-third the regular height, grew to infinity. It was nice to not be alone in the dark.
A few days later, they moved to a room with an even lower ceiling. The height of the room was one-fourth what was normal, so it was a good room to lie down in. If you lay prone, your head wouldn't bump into anything, and there was no need to stoop over until your spine warped. But because the room was so good for lying down, some people who went in would come out unable to walk very well. Their bodies had been molded to fit the room. When they moved, they'd crawl on all fours, or they'd stretch their arms out like feelers and sweep the floor with their butts and thighs. The man and woman were now such veterans they could slide their bodies across a bed of gravel. At some point, the man began to stroke the woman's circular back—her spine was gone. It didn't look like a back, but rather like the stomach of an expectant mother approaching delivery.
The walls diminished into nonexistence as rooms grew cheaper and higher up. The man and woman were now surrounded on all four sides by partitions as flimsy as a stage set. Here, everyone had to roll his or her back up like a ball to move even a bit. The man and woman overheard some of their neighbors say that it wasn't the ceiling was too low, but their own bodies were too long. Others said the problem was that their backs were too stiff. Of [End Page 200] course, this was all just chatter that crept through the walls. One day, though, it sounded as if someone was purposefully sending a signal. They pressed their ears against the wall the sound was coming from. It was a rhythmical ringing.
Something like Morse code was coming through the wall as if someone were trying to send a message. The sound continued for a bit and then stopped. After the first message stopped, they continued to hear occasional tapping. Even if it was Morse code, they couldn't decipher it. Still, the act of listening was meaningful, so they enthusiastically leaned toward the wall. They would sometimes bang the wall with a cup, too. Without knowing the meaning of what message they were sending, or even what letters they might be hitting against the wall, they tried to communicate.
One morning, someone flung his or her body out the window like a shooting star, and after that there was no Morse code to be heard. They didn't know if that someone, shrieking in mid-air, was committing suicide or attempting to fly, but the first thing they did after hearing the off-beat thud that followed was firmly close the double pane windows. After closing all the windows, they got under the covers. They weren't sure if the fallen person was male or female, young or old. But they did know that the moment that person had thrust his or her body into the air, he or she was finally able to straighten out a back and knees made crooked by the motel's tiny rooms. Even if only for a second.
The thing they feared more than falling was ascension. Falling left traces on the ground, but when you rose into the heavens, up and up until you were just a speck in the sky, there was nothing left behind. They were already so far up that they couldn't see the ground from their window. The man wanted to put the woman, and her bag, inside Fantastic Love and carry them out of the motel. And if the snow had melted, and the road was clear, and he could find his truck and drive down Road 436 back to the city? He'd go to a room where he could put his two feet on the ground and stand [End Page 201] up straight. Since the man was taller than the woman, the woman would be able to stand up on two feet right beside him.
At that moment, someone knocked on the door.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
"If you don't remove your vending machine by tomorrow, the motel will dispose of it. Have a wonderful day."
As soon as it was bright the next day, the man went to the back door of the motel. He remembered that he'd placed the old person's corpse inside of Fantastic Love. But when he opened the door to the machine, what was curled up in between the springs wasn't the body of an old person, but that of an animal, its spine crumbling from decay. The wild animal had slipped to the bottom like one of the vending machine's products.
The snow flurries lightened up, little by little. When the man and woman ran out of all the money they had with them, a loan machine showed up again. This one was a little different. Its official name was ID Revocation Machine. It processed requests quickly.
1. Place ID card in slot.
2. After credit evaluation, withdrawal amount will be displayed on screen. Allowable withdrawal amount varies with individual credit score.
3. Press button for lifetime personal information transfer and cash will be released.
4. ID card will not be returned; ID number will be authorized for external use from moment of cash withdrawal.
The man pulled his ID card out of his wallet. "If money comes out," he said, "let's pick the room with the highest ceiling in the whole motel." The woman also pulled her ID out of her wallet. "Let's eat steak and drink wine in the room with the highest ceiling," she added. Considering that she was mortgaging her entire life, she wanted to spend the money on something special. They [End Page 202] pushed their ID cards into the machine, and the cards didn't come out again. All they received was 80,000 wŏn.
A room with a high ceiling would be too expensive. They calculated that they could only manage to stay at the motel another day, maybe two. And so they paid for a room even better for lying down than any of the rooms before. It was one-fifth sized. They also bought a razor and nail clippers. They'd decided to tame into neatness everything that had grown too long. With the remaining money, they bought pork belly and vitamins. Lying prostrate, they placed the strips of pork belly on a frying pan. They crunched the bumpy bones between thick layers of fat. The whole room was filled with the sound of munching and crunching. It was only two servings, but no matter how much they ate, there was as much meat on the pan as when they'd started. The man and the woman placed several pieces of blackened, fossilized meat in front of them and lay side by side under the low ceiling. The woman pulled out the bottle of vitamins. They put several pills in their mouths as the label directed and gulped them down. A few tablets of hope fell through their long throat tunnels like shooting stars. No, more like they crashed. On that night when shooting stars crashed down their throats, the two looked out their flat window at the moonless, starless sky until they could look no more.
Mail arrived for them. An envelope contained a bill for a card under the woman's name. Someone had now taken her identity. A few days later, another bill came. Someone else had gotten a phone number under the man's name. While the man and woman lay in this narrow coffin, their ID cards had sprouted wings and flown out of the motel in a gust of lies. For some reason, every time a card bill arrived, the man's and woman's pulses quickened, their faces etched with a vague expression somewhere between resignation and ecstasy.
They could hear the sound of their bones adapting to the price of each room as they rolled their bodies into balls to avoid the ever-lower ceilings. They didn't know if this was evolution [End Page 203] or atrophy. Anyhow, in their one-sixth sized room, there was no window, so they couldn't even see the sky. All they could do was lie down. Because there was no furniture and no bedding inside, it was the best room of them all for lying down. Unwelcome mail like bills, bill reminders, car seizure notices, obituaries, and other such things flew into their firmly closed door and perished like birds hitting an iceberg. Time accumulated in front of the door like layers of dirt, and their room continued to rise higher and higher off the ground. And when it became so high that there was no way to climb down, it stayed up there like a dot in the sky.
One day, when the snow flurries had grown thin, the ice on the road cracked mightily and revealed what was hiding underneath. Months-old moss was tangled in layers on cracks in the ice. The wing from a frozen bird fluttered away with a necrotic groan. Then someone knocked on the door.
They couldn't tell if the words they'd heard were to "leave the room" or "leave the building." What was clear was that there was no longer a single square foot of the motel in which they could stay. The woman left her stage, the man left his vending machine, and they both exited the motel. Straightening their curved spines once again felt awkward. They crawled on all fours the whole way down the slope. It was more stable that way, and faster. Their hands were roughened like feet. They could see Road 436 laid out below like tape at a finish line. Road 436, which had been at some point fully cleared, was now lacking more than just cameras and traffic. There was no snow, no trucks, no fallen bodies. The road looked like it had been wiped clean with an eraser.
They motioned wildly to stop one of the cars passing by the motel, racing along with no apparent regard for the speed limit. They waved their arms up and down, made hand gestures, and even stomped their feet. But no car stopped. Their horns honking, the cars flashed by in windstorms of their own making. The louder the man spoke, the larger the woman's hand gestures, the faster the cars. [End Page 204]
They saw a passing truck and ran to the middle of the road. The two tried to block the vehicle with their bodies, but it didn't slow down. Man and woman, they lurched up into the wind, then fell onto the road like late autumn leaves. From their point of view, it looked like the motel had flipped upside-down. Up became down, down became up, and everything winked at them.
Someone emerged from the truck and checked on them before getting back in. They hadn't died, but they were no longer human. Unbeknownst to them, the truck driver looked back through his rear-view mirror as he drove farther and farther away. He was looking at two wild animals lying in the middle of the road, their backs round as balloons, legs thin as whips, eyes dangerous as fireworks. And at the "Caution: Wildlife Crossing" sign sticking up from the ground behind them.
"Wildlife crossing zone ahead. Wildlife crossing zone ahead."
The GPS in the truck chirped like a cricket as the vehicle drove away. [End Page 205]
Yun Ko Eun is the author of three novels and three short story collections. She has won the Daesan Literary Award for College Students, the Hankyoreh Literary Award, and the Yi Hyoseok Literary Award for her work.
Lizzie Buehler is a freelance Korean translator and editor at Asymptote. Her translations of work by Yun Ko Eun and other writers appear or are forthcoming in Asymptote, The Massachusetts Review, Korean Literature Now, and Litro.