This story is by Robert King and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Wan Yu Fe cursed, breath visible in the evening chill. He pulled his school jacket tight, sprinting across the road, worn shoes slapping pavement. Taking the stairs two at a time, he descended into the relative warmth of Tsun Juan station.
His left foot nearly slipped as he took a sharp turn around the corner and kept going. As the ticket machine came into sight he finally slowed down, his legs feeling like rubber and the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.
The cartoon dog mascot on the LCD screen barked and waved, the digital clock in the corner a relentless reminder that it was well past his curfew. He retrieved the plastic student ID from around his neck, slamming it forcefully onto the scanner. The screen flickered before displaying the Seol Metro map. Tapping the red dot closest to home, a white slip of paper emerged.
Sighing, he realized he had just missed the train, now facing a daunting thirty-minute wait. He once again cursed the teacher who had made him stay after class, turning away from the animated display and venturing deeper into the tunnels.
As he walked, memories of his mother’s stern face haunted him. He could almost feel the sting of her hand, and the promise of worse if he was ever late again. He had gone to sleep hungry that night, curling around his empty stomach and crying into his pillow. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the dull pain twisting in his stomach.
When he finally looked up, he was taking the last step down onto the cracked and worn concrete of platform number six. Normally, the platform would be packed wall to wall with commuters and filled with the noise of footsteps and half conversations. Now the cavernous space lay before him; halogen lights high above bathed the area in a pale yellow and filled the silence with a buzzing drone.
Acutely aware that he was on his own late at night, he proceeded cautiously, keeping as much of the tunnel in sight as possible. When he was about halfway to the center, the pile of what he had assumed to be trash near one of the concrete pillars shifted, a dirty crop of gray hair and glasses just poking out of a poorly patched brown coat. A single weathered hand clutched a bottle to his chest, the other keeping the pile of newspapers he used as a blanket from blowing away in some imaginary wind.
Holding his breath until his chest burned, he sighed in relief, noticing the old beggar still asleep. He wondered to himself why the wall was vibrating slightly and took a few steps back. He realized he had been leaning against a pair of vending machines. One flashed digital advertisements for the many drinks it had to offer, while the other held row upon row of perfectly packaged snacks and sandwiches.
With determination, he lunged towards the vending machine, his fingers clawing at the meager remnants of his lunch money. Disappointment washed over him as he extracted a paltry handful of change, not enough for even the cheapest snack. Leaning against the machine, his gaze involuntarily shifted back to the old beggar and the inverted hat resting beside him.
Even as Wan Yu Fe crept forward involuntarily, he despised himself for even considering stealing. He wanted to stop, to turn back and just wait for the train, but when he saw the 5,000 KRW note just sticking up out of the hat…
With shame in his heart, and crumpled paper in hand, he hardly dared make a sound as he slunk back to the vending machine. His mood improved as he punched the number for a large sandwich, intending to give half to the beggar.
As he was inserting the crinkled paper, a loud bang and wild voices shattered his concentration. Fearing the old man had caught him, he swiftly ducked around the machine, clutching his backpack. The initial jolt faded, resolving into five voices echoing around the room.
Slipping the pack around his back, he peered around the corner. Five students from Park Sung High descended, uniforms identifying them from a low-end school with a reputation for violence and drugs. Four boys and a girl made their way onto the platform. Yu Fe kept quiet as the fattest boy walked over to him, pressed buttons at the vending machine, and grabbed a sweet cake. He remained motionless until the large boy walked off, treat in hand.
With the immediate danger passed, he took a moment to plan how to avoid the older kids and catch the train. However, the sudden laughter of the skinny boy set Yu Fe’s nerves on edge. Turning back, he saw the pimply faced teen raise his foot and drive the pointy tip of his shoe into the stomach of the old man.
Again and again that boy kicked the beggar who was now covering his head, not even making a sound. Wan looked to the others, maybe they would stop their friend? That hope died when the last and largest boy smirked, picking the beggar up by his long coat and lifting him off his feet. Milky white eyes stared out of a sunken face, the only sign of life his ragged breathing and the barest twist of his mouth in pain.
By now, all the high schoolers surrounded the beggar. Some jeered, some insulted him for his looks and smell. The skinny boy, barely taller than Wan, kept punching the beggar in the ribs.
Wan couldn’t believe his eyes. Though he had witnessed violence on TV, the reality unfolding before him felt profoundly wrong—he had never been in a real fight. Nausea churned in his stomach, threatening to claw its way up his throat. How could they do that to someone they didn’t even know? He then lowered his gaze to his own hands, crumpled money protruding from a tightly clenched fist.
Something shifted deep within Wan Yu Fe. Without another thought he reached into his bag, grabbed the heaviest thing he could find, took three running steps and threw it at the other boy’s twisted face. The textbook flew wide, and instead hit the largest boy square in the back. Time stretched, each heartbeat echoing in his ears as five pairs of eyes locked onto him.
He was far too slow to outrun the hand that neatly encircled his neck. He was sent flying, landing hard on his knee. A leg that felt like iron clipped his shoulder, causing his world to explode in pain and flipping him onto his stomach. A giant foot pressed him down, the fat one laughing at him.
Through tear-filled eyes, Wan observed the old man. Gaze penetrating and assessing, the beggar seemed regarded Yu Fe with calm indifference to the relentless kicks raining upon him. With each blow, Wan’s worth was measured by unseeing eyes. As darkness clouded Wan’s vision, he instinctively extended his left hand, proffering the stolen money.
He felt a snapping in his ribs.
In the blink of an eye, the old man changed. He smoothly shed his coat, revealing a lean, muscular physique. In one fluid motion, he covered three meters to seize the skinny boy’s wrist. With a swift twist, a pop echoed as the boy knelt, nursing a broken hand. When the large fellow swung a massive fist, the old man deftly redirected the blow with a gentle touch, sending it straight into the pretty boy’s jaw. Yu Fe, bewildered, watched as the old man then dropped the muscled boy with three quick strikes.
A sudden release of pressure allowed Yu Fe to gasp for breath as the fat one charged the old man. Adopting a low stance, the beggar positioned his hands strategically. As the fat one approached, Yu Fe struggled to follow the elder’s movements, smooth as water and fast as the wind. In a swift motion, the fat boy was sent flying over the elder’s head, colliding with the slowly rising skinny boy with a resounding slap.
His heart thundered as he noticed the girl behind his rescuer pulling a gun from her purse. Despite his pained lungs, he strained to shout a warning. Then the tables turned, the girl finding herself staring at her own gun in the elder’s hand. Her look of terror dissipated as the butt of the gun connected with her temple, causing her to slump and join the others in unconsciousness.
As the dust settled, Yu Fe found the elder standing before him, filmy eyes boring into his own. Face red with shame and pain, he bowed low, offering up the stolen money in cupped hands.
The station suddenly echoed with the approaching subway, making Yu Fe jump. When he looked around, all signs of the beggar were gone. All that remained of his passing were the unconscious teens, a humbled boy, and in his hand a worn flyer for lessons in Kung Fu.