But in Her Heart a Cold December
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: “Might be CIA,” Daria Morgendorffer sarcastically wrote of the security-obsessed principal of “Laaawndale High,” Angela Li—but Daria was closer to the truth than she knew. From her hospital bed, Ms. Li reviews her turbulent life through the Cold War as she recovers from her breakdown in the fifth-season episode, “Fizz Ed.”
Author’s Notes: This story was written in response to a personal challenge issued by Brother Grimace on PPMB, who asked that I write “a serious piece on Ms. Li that goes into her head. . . . a serious piece on Ms. Li that, without killing off half of the student population or her immediate family, can actually make the reader feel sympathy for her and/or her goals for the students of LHS.”
Following the letter of the challenge perhaps more closely than the intent, the following story is offered, in which no one dies in Ms. Li’s immediate family, and the student population of Lawndale High School is unharmed, but several million other people die. It can’t be helped, as it’s already in the history books. The story is also designed to mesh with canon, fitting inside the fifth season “Daria” episode, “Fizz Ed,” during Ms. Li’s brief hospitalization at the end of the show. The year is assumed to be A.D. 2000, a little over four weeks after Ms. Li signed the contract with Ultra-Cola to let the company market its products at LHS for cash, which occurred after the Superbowl. Elements from that episode, a later one (“Lucky Strike”), and the movie Is It College Yet? are incorporated herein. Early parts of IICY are assumed to have occurred during or between certain fifth-season episodes, covering Daria’s senior year at Lawndale High.
The story’s title comes from the last stanza in an English madrigal for four voices, from the year 1597.
Acknowledgements: Here’s to you, Brother Grimace.
To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
—President George Washington, address to Congress, 1790
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Angela Li blinked in the glare of the ceiling lights, aware that she had awakened from a deep sleep. Disoriented, she thought for a dreadful moment that she was in that room again, and she flinched in sudden fear. After a long moment, she realized that she was alone. Her fear passed, though her confusion remained.
She found that she lay on her back in a narrow bed, covered with a light blanket, a pair of pajamas, and not much else. Her vision was clear but fuzzy, as her glasses were missing. Her left arm had an IV needle in it, the tube taped to her skin. A small device with wires trailing from it was taped to the tip of her left middle finger. Her gaze drifted to the left, where she noticed a heart-monitoring machine with a green light flashing on top of it; the wires from her finger led there. The room was small but bright, with a single window and door, three chairs and a desk (her rectangular-frame glasses sat folded on a stack of papers there), and medical items scattered about the room.
She touched her face and ran her fingers through her short black hair to reassure herself that she was truly awake. What is going on? she wondered. Am I in a hospital? How did I get here? Her head throbbed with a dull ache, slowing and clouding her thoughts.
Footsteps sounded outside the door. The door opened, and a smiling doctor and nurse entered.
“Good morning!” said the doctor in a loud voice. “Ms. Li? I’m Doctor Robertson, and this is Ms. Ross, one of our LPNs. I see you’re awake now. How are you feeling?”
“Feel tired,” Angela mumbled. She made a face. “My mouth tastes . . . funny.” Am I drugged?
“That’s probably from the medication,” said the doctor, opening and reading the chart he carried. “You were having a rough time when they brought you in yesterday from Lawndale High School, so we gave you a sedative in your IV to help you rest.”
“My IV? Oh. I have a . . . what happened? How did I—” I feel like my head was beaten and stuffed with cotton. Am I hung over?
“Do you remember what happened when you were brought in?” the doctor asked.
“Um . . . I think I was . . . with the cola machines, there was a problem with the Ultra-Cola machines. I remember I was . . .” I was hitting them with a fire axe, heaven help me. I remember it now. I couldn’t control my thoughts or what I did. Fine way for a high-school principal to behave! I wanted the students to drink more Ultra-Cola, so we would get more money from that company, but my mind completely got away from me. I must have been crazy for a while. The superintendent was there—oh, no! Superintendent Cartwright was there, heaven knows why, and he must have seen every—
“I’m sorry. You faded out there on me. You said you were what?”
“I don’t remember much of it. It’s like a dream.” A better answer than the truth. I’ll have to think up a good excuse for the superintendent later, when I’m more coherent. “May I have my glasses, please?”
“Certainly.” Nurse Ross carefully put the glasses on Angela’s face, then the doctor and nurse each took a seat near her bed. The nurse kept her eye on the medical monitoring equipment but did not appear concerned.
“Ms. Li,” Dr. Robertson said, “if you don’t mind, I want to talk with you for a while and get a little more information on how you’re doing.”
Angela waved a hand. “Oh, very well. Fire away.” It’s not like I can refuse you in my condition.
The doctor grinned and pulled a pen from his white coat pocket. “What is your full name, please?”
“Angela Li. No middle name.” Ah, doctor, but there was once a Li Joo-Hyun, in a distant time and place where a cold war burned.
“What year were you born?”
“Nineteen fifty-two.” Are you testing my memory? In reality, then, I was born in nineteen forty-four. I hope I did not say that aloud. My homeland government adjusted my papers before I came to America, so I could better perform my duties here. Those were exciting days. . . .
“You are—how old?”
“Forty-seven.” Can you not count? In truth: fifty-five and hiding it well, I hope.
“Do you know where you are now?”
“I believe that I’m in . . .” The hospital’s name is on the calendar on the wall, but you didn’t see the calendar when you came in. “I’m in Cedars of Lawndale Hospital. I don’t know my room number.”
Dr. Robertson laughed. “That’s fine. I meant to ask if you knew what city you were in, but that’s an even better answer. You’re in room six twenty-five.”
Angela blinked, surprised. “Six twenty-five,” she said. “Thank you.” My birthday. How strange. June twenty-fifth, nineteen forty-four. My thoughts are thicker than concrete. It must be from the lack of caffeine.
“Ms. Li, do you know what day this is?”
He’s definitely testing me. “February . . . no, March, the um . . .” It feels like I have a hangover. I could use an Ultra-Cola. Is there a machine on this floor? “Saturday, March fourth, if I was brought in yesterday.” Yesterday was Friday the third. The fourth—an unlucky number for a Korean. Yesterday should have been the fourth, since that’s when my bad luck appeared.
“Excellent. To be honest, I’m checking your mental status. You’re oriented to person, place, and time. Now, I’d like to ask a few questions and check your distant memories. I want to see how quickly you retrieve them, what you remember. Okay?”
“Why is that? Do you think I have brain damage?” Like yourself? Or are you really a doctor? I wonder now.
“No, no. We like to find out how the good old brain is working, you know. You had quite a spell yesterday. We’re waiting on some lab results and an MRI scan we did last night, but we don’t expect to find anything wrong. This is just another way of checking on your condition. Do you mind a few more questions?”
“Oh . . . very well.” I do not like others to peer into my past, doctor or doctor-not, so you will not mind if I answer carefully. People are not always what they seem.
“Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Were you born in America?”
“No. I was born in Seoul, Korea.” We lived by the railroad yards, where my father worked. He wanted to be a teacher; he read everything he could find, and he taught my mother and me to read and write. He would have been a great teacher, but the Japanese destroyed his dreams. They tried to erase us as a people, my father often said. They tried to paint over us, cover up our culture and language and everything we are, when they ruled us. I could not go to school and get my degree to become a teacher, he said, so now I load and unload boxcars to feed my family. The Americans are blessed for destroying our oppressors, burning up their cities and bombing their armies so we could be free—but now the Communists will enslave us if they can. It will be worse than what the Japanese did to us. We must do everything we can to be free. Remember that, Joo-Hyun: everything.
She shook her head and came back to reality. “Yes?” I’m daydreaming too much. The medication is doing this. I am so tired, and my mind is so—
“I was asking how you spell that.”
“Spell what?” I must be careful with my tongue. Do not say too much, Joo-Hyun.
“That’s in South Korea, right?”
“Yes.” Dolt. Did you not take Geography in school? Do I look like a Communist?
“Nineteen fifty-two. So, you were born during the war, then?”
“Yes, near the end.” Swallow that one for me, if you would. I was old enough to remember the start of the war as well as anyone could—all too well.
“Huh. I used to watch reruns of ‘M.A.S.H.’ all the time when I was in college. That was a great show, really funny.”
“Hmmm.” Idiot. Yes, it was funny, very funny on my sixth birthday when the air-raid sirens sang over my city because the Communists were flooding across the border from the north. My mother would not leave Seoul, so my father used all our savings to buy food and medicine and blankets, and we hid in our dirt-walled cellar a few days later when the People’s Korean Army arrived. Through the wood floor above me, I heard the grumble of heavy trucks, the crack of rifles, the thump of bullets hitting the walls of our house as the PKA came through the streets. We found ourselves in the Communists’ hands and thought it could not possibly get worse. We were wrong. We were horribly, terribly wrong.
“Ms. Li? You looked distracted for a bit.”
“I am so sorry, but the medication—I feel so—” Fake it good, girl.
“Not a problem! Take your time.”
“Thank you.” I shall. The stress must have made me crazy yesterday. I didn’t sleep well for days before, either—all that caffeine in the Ultra-Cola, no doubt. My poor, aching head!
“Did your parents ever talk about the war?”
“Oh . . . yes, of course. It was very much on their minds.” The thunder in the west woke us up. My father got up from the floor and went to listen at a window. It is from Inchon, he said. It must be the Americans. They are landing at Inchon. They have come back to save us. We dared not turn on the radio, or the PKA would shoot us all, as they had shot so many in our city. “Everyone talked about the war. It affected . . . everything, you know.” My father was taken away by the PKA to fight for them, but he escaped and came back to us as the Americans advanced from Inchon, their aircraft filling the skies and their guns pounding the North Koreans firing from Seoul. We hid in our cellar as the city was blasted and burned to cinders. The ground jumped, dust and dirt fell on us, and we choked on the smoke until I was sure we would die. Our house collapsed on us, but it did not burn, and the ruins protected us from the shelling and gunfire. When we dug our way out three days later, half our neighborhood lay in piles of smoking rubble.
“Do you have any other living relatives?”
“No.” You may have the truth, for once. My parents’ siblings and their families died in their homes. We alone of our family survived, and we salvaged very little, but we had cause for relief. The Americans were back, the PKA was routed, and we thought the end of the war was near. Had we known it had only started, we would have fled south at once and saved ourselves from the terrors yet to come.
“Are your parents still alive?”
“Yes. I’m an only child.” Get up, I shouted at my mother, please get up. She lay in the falling snow beside the refugee-choked road through the mountains to Pusan, when we fled Seoul from the Chinese tide. It was late December, and even the Americans could not hold the Chinese back. Get up, please, I begged my mother. Her hands were like ice, and she seemed to be asleep. My father knelt down and lifted my mother to his back. Cover her with a blanket, he shouted, we must keep her warm, Joo-Hyun. We left all our belongings there by the roadside, beside the fallen dead and the debris, and we rejoined the river of marching people that stretched as far as the eye could see, a million feet crunching the ice on the road. The falling snow muffled all sounds, and the cold ate into my lungs and bones as I walked, the endless bitter cold. . . .
The doctor discretely coughed to bring back Angela’s wandering attention. “What was your life like as a child?” he asked.
She sighed. “It . . . was hard, because we were poor. Times were difficult at best, as you can imagine.” When we walked back to Seoul in the spring, the highway was littered with the blackened shells of trucks and tanks of every nationality. My feet were wrapped in rags; I wore a filthy coat I took from a dead girl my age. We had nothing left but what we carried. It was not difficult to envy those we left behind, buried in mass graves at refugee camps in the south. “And the unexpected always has a way of making itself known, but we did our best.” When we reached Seoul, I looked for our home, but the neighborhood had been burned to the ground. Only the chimneys were left, a forest of blackened pillars in long rows by the old streets, where bulldozers had plowed the rubble aside. We lived in the railroad yard among the wrecked boxcars in which my father had worked less than a year before, and we ate anything we could find.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s interesting that you’re from Korea, yet your first name is Angela.”
“My parents—” —would never have done it. The Americans caught me stealing from their mess tent on the outskirts of Seoul, in the spring of 1951. The Americans were big and pink-faced and sharp-nosed and had loud voices. They befriended me and called me Angel. They taught me to sing Broadway show tunes, and they gave me shoes and chocolate and food I took back to my parents. Most of them were kind and protected me, but even the bad Americans killed Communists, so I held nothing against them.
“Your parents . . . what?”
“Ah—my parents had a thing about Americans, because of the war, you know. So, they named me Angela.” They would have killed themselves before giving me a non-Korean name. Angela was the name I took when I immigrated to America in 1970 and left Joo-Hyun behind.
“Ah.” The doctor, Angela noticed, had a pocket tape recorder running. He made a few notes in her chart. “What was school like for you?”
Are you probing me, my good doctor? Will you report back to your government or my former one when you leave this room? And why do you need to know this? “School?”
The doctor smiled. “Elementary and high school, or the equivalent of it.”
“I was a good student, I recall. I liked going to school.” I went to school under a tent with the few other surviving children in the area, taught by an old man who was missing his left leg. We used paper and pencils donated by the Americans and books scavenged from the ruins. I always did my assignments, with my father’s help, and I swept the dirt floor of the classroom after school. The old man said I was his only good pupil. He wept because I reminded him of his dead grandchildren.
Dr. Robertson grinned at a private joke as he wrote something in her chart.
“Something amusing?” asked Angela in a deadpan.
“Oh, nothing, really,” said the doctor. “I was just thinking of that old saying—those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.’” He hesitated as the import of his words came to him, and he looked up in embarrassment. “Um, I hope I didn’t—”
Angela’s eyes narrowed. “I was a teacher for fifteen years before I became a principal,” she said in a flat voice. “The saying is from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. Mr. Shaw also said, ‘The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.’” Oh, to have had you in my hands two-dozen years ago, when my word was enough to wad your miserable life into a ball and throw it into the iron stove of hell. Oh, for the pleasure that would have brought me.
The doctor looked down at his notes, his face turning red. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat under Angela’s gaze. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “So, getting on with the questions, did you have a job when you were growing up?”
“When I began high school—” Careful, Joo-Hyun, you are in the minefield now “—I helped teach some of the smaller students, and I ran errands for the schoolmaster.” The schoolmaster had contacts among the U.N. forces, and he gave me medicine for my mother, who was often sick. I did not know it at the time, but the old man had been part of the resistance against the Japanese overlords. “It helped make ends meet.” The errands I ran for him when in my teens always involved taking papers to a certain place that always changed, handing the papers—which I had hidden under my coat—to a particular man there. This was always done in secret, and I received extra food for it, which I gave to my parents.
The doctor paused, looking away in thought. “I had a friend who joined the army a few years ago. He was stationed in Korea and said it was kind of bleak, but he was way out in the boonies, you know? He was a long way from town. No offense.”
“None taken.” Shall I tell you of my first impressions of your mad country when I arrived here? Or should I be honorable and polite, and let it pass? I will smile for you now. “Are we done with the questioning? Is my mind working properly?”
The doctor laughed nervously. “Your mind is working fine, Ms. Li. I do have a few more—”
The beeper on the doctor’s belt went off. “Excuse me,” he said, and he glanced at the display. He shook his head and got to his feet. “I’d better go. It’s almost lunchtime, anyway. Ms. Ross will check your blood pressure and temperature, and I shall return in an hour or two. I have some other questions, if you don’t mind, about the incident yesterday that brought you here.” He waved and left the room.
Angela smiled weakly at the nurse who walked over to her bedside—if a nurse the young woman really was. “Is there any chance the hospital kitchen has kimchee?” she asked with a trace of hope.
The nurse frowned as she lifted Angela’s wrist and took her pulse. “Kim what?” she said. “Who’s that?”
Poor child. If it doesn’t look like a French fry, you don’t know what to do with it, do you? “Never mind,” Angela said with a sigh. “It was a long shot, anyway. If there is a spicy noodle dish available, I will have that, please.”
Lack of money is the root of all evil.
—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
The people may be made to follow a path of action,
but they may not be made to understand it.
Angela Li glared at the television set hanging from the ceiling of her hospital room. Propped up on her bed after her lunch and a nurse-assisted bathroom visit, she watched a CNN reporter in Seoul inform her of a scheduled summit meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea, set for June. The look on her face could have melted rock into magma.
After Nurse Ross was called away before she could complete her check of vital signs, Angela began channel surfing, finding nothing close at hand to read. She was slowly feeling more like her old take-charge self. The only sour note had been the hospital’s unwillingness to provide her with any sort of spicy food, much less her beloved kimchee. Bad for her digestion, the staff said—as if they knew anything at all about proper digestion with all the fat-soaked fried garbage they probably eat, ran her thoughts. The nurse finally let Angela have extra black pepper, so she could choke down the otherwise tasteless chicken noodle soup. She made a mental note to hide packets of pepper oil and spices in her clothing in case something unexpected like a hospitalization ever happened again.
Her mood, which had improved nonetheless, was entirely spoiled by the TV news. Morons! she fumed, watching footage of the North Korean military on parade. How anyone can think the Communists will keep their word to do anything but lie and betray and destroy is beyond me! A video appeared of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic, smiling and waving at a crowd. Enraged, Angela thrust her upraised middle fingers at the television. Eat this, you traitorous mongrel! You have fooled no one. You will see what I mean. You will see, indeed.
The news then switched to a different topic, the coming presidential election in November. Angela lay back on her pillows, sinking into depression. Governor Bush hasn’t written back to me yet, she silently grumbled. I’ve sent him six letters and received not a word in reply. American politicians are supposed to be so approachable—ha! You’d think one of his flunkies would have at least sent a postcard. Maybe I should have sent a little money for his campaign, too, but the school’s defenses ran over budget, and we can hardly do without them. Only the fool does not prepare for winter—or for war.
Angela picked up the remote and shut the TV off, then tossed the remote on the bedside table. She rubbed her eyes, aware of a dull headache and general weariness. Almost fifty years now since my ruined sixth birthday, but the cold war never ends. Everyone mouths words of peace, but until the murderers in the north are thrown down, nothing will happen, nothing at all—except the next war. And that war will come. I know it in my bones. I have read the signs and portents, listened what was said and not said, assembled the puzzle from bits and pieces all others ignored. How can everyone else have missed it? Am I truly alone?
The last question was rhetorical only. She knew she was alone. She also believed that she was right. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I love that saying, but I forget who said it. Edmund someone—Burns? Burke? I should look it up when I get out of here.
A knock came from the door, interrupting her gloom. A moment later, the door swung open, and a young woman wearing a peasant blouse, fiber sandals, and a long woven beige skirt peeked in. A timid lamb greets a wounded dragon, Angela thought, and she gave her best official smile. “Hello, Miss Defoe,” she said aloud. “Bring a little school spirit along with you?”
“Hello, Ms. Li! Happy Saturday!” The woman gave Angela an anxious smile back as she entered the room and carefully shut the door behind her. Her chestnut-red hair was wavy and long, and a handmade seashell necklace, green yarn-and-bead bracelet, and oversized mood ring completed her neo-hippie ensemble. She held a grocery bag in her arms and had an enormous purse on a shoulder strap. “You’re looking great!” said Claire with forced cheer. She checked her grocery sack. “I think I’ve got everything that you asked for when you called me earlier.”
“Let’s see,” said Angela, sitting up again. She adjusted her glasses and took the sack from Claire. Claire Defoe, thought Angela as she went through the bag’s contents. Twenty-nine years old, a starry-eyed liberal idealist from Tacoma on your first major teaching job. You have a world peace website you haven’t updated in three years, and lately you’ve used the school computer to e-mail a former high-school boyfriend who now works in Seattle, detailing the six hundred reasons why you dislike the World Trade Organization while also asking if there’s any chance your ex-flame will visit Lawndale soon. You hint that he can stay over in your studio apartment. He, not the WTO, is the burning issue in your lonely, dateless life.
“Ah,” said Angela in triumph, “a chilled six-pack of Ultra-Cola—excellent!—my cell phone, the charger, my laptop, my appointments book, and—oh!” Her face filled with delight, Angela pulled a large jar from the sack and clutched it to her bosom. “Kimchee! Yes!” She kissed the jar. “You are such a dear! I’ll pay you for it Monday when I’m back in the office.”
“You’re welcome,” said Claire, wrinkling her nose at the kimchee. She had tried it once in college, and it had nearly burned off her taste buds. “The Oriental Kwikee Mart had lots of it. Oh, and I brought you something else!”
Angela looked up over the top of her glasses. “Oh?” Something with a high alcohol content, I hope. A little bottle of Irish whiskey, or—
“Here!” Claire exclaimed, pulling a large, brown-paper-wrapped package from her voluminous purse. “It’s a wind chime! I made it myself from recycled aluminum cans. Ultra-Cola cans, of course.”
Angela kept her smile frozen in place. “Eh . . . wonderful, dear. You can leave it on the chair against the wall, over there. I’ll look at it later. And how were things at Laaawndale High yesterday when I, um, left? Did everyone cope without me?” Did everyone remember to stay out of my computer files? If not—
“We did our best.” Claire’s bright look faded. She cleared her throat, looking more nervous. “However, Mister Cartwright, the school superintendent, is investigating the, um, contract with Ultra-Cola. He said he might have to make, um, certain, um—” Her voice dropped to a whisper “—adjustments to it, but we’ll still—”
Angela looked up, eyes wide. Adjustments? Oh, no! “Cartwright didn’t do anything rash, did he?” she asked, barely keeping her voice steady. “He didn’t cancel it, did he? We need that revenue! Did he talk with Leonard Lamm at Bleeding Edge Marketing? We’re on the line between red ink and black, as you know!” I absolutely have to get out of this place and get back to my office tonight to call Lamm! This could be disastrous! I need the upgrade to that satellite transmission jammer, or I’m cooked!
“I don’t know what he had in mind,” said Claire, “but I’m sure he isn’t going to cancel the contract.” She took a seat near Angela’s bed. “He said he wanted to eliminate some of the, um, extreme measures that Mister Lamm and the Ultra-Cola people have forced you—I mean, all of us—into taking. The stress is just too much for, um, the school. We’ll still get the income, I’m pretty sure of that. We’re still the only public school in Carter County with a positive balance, although . . .” She shrugged. “Oh, well.”
“Oh well, what?” Angela said. Her faced hardened, and she was not able to keep the venom out of her voice. I already know from reading your e-mails to Freddo in Seattle that you don’t like my deal with the devil to keep Lawndale High afloat, she thought as a nervous Claire stared back at her. Very well—let’s see if you can come up with a better idea. The good people of Carter County would rather spend their money for cable TV and gas for their SUVs than pay extra in property taxes to support their own children’s education, not to mention their police and fire departments and libraries and whatnot. Let’s see what brilliant idea you can pull out of your ass to save our betrayed, beaten, barely surviving educational system, my dear, sweet, principled Claire.
Swallowing, Claire shook her head rapidly. “Oh, nothing, Ms. Li, nothing! It’s . . . we’re . . . we’re doing great!” She imitated raising and drinking from a soda can. “Cheers to Ultra-Cola!”
Angela’s glare softened to a disdainful gaze. You don’t even have the courage that Daria Morgendorffer showed when she challenged me on this, but I can forgive her. She is just a child, and a sheltered one at that. When she leaves school and faces the real world, she’ll find out exactly how valuable and useful her vaunted morality is. She will appreciate, as I did, that ethics will not fill anyone’s stomach. The things I did to keep my parents and myself alive after the war, the things I did. . . .
With an effort, Angela shoved the bad memories aside. She could do nothing about the contract situation now, unless her cell phone was charged. She thought about calling then and there, but a wave of weariness swept over her. She slumped back on her pillows. I don’t feel as well as I thought I did. I’d better rest a bit longer. If I get up but then collapse in here, they’ll never let me out.
“How are you feeling?” said Claire. She was eager to change the subject. “We were very worried about you.”
That’s possible, but I doubt it, Angela thought. You were the only teacher I knew who would go shopping for me if I asked. Some would say you were too nice to refuse, but I would say that you’ve got the assertiveness of a hamster. “I’ve been doing much better since yesterday,” she finally said. “I hardly remember what happened. I should apologize to everyone for anything I said or did.” May as well get that out of the way.
“Oh, you were fine,” Claire said. “We were a little worried when you . . . uh . . .”
“I recall swinging a fire axe around, attacking things,” Angela prompted.
Claire paled. “Oh, no one was hurt, so no problem! I’m sure there was a reason!”
Angela gave a thin smile. If nothing else, the axe story should keep everyone in line when salary negotiations come up with the teachers’ union, unless Anthony “Popeye” DeMartino is the negotiator. He won’t back down. He’s wanted to go toe-to-toe with me for months. “There is good news is that I hope to be back at Laaawndale High tomorrow morning, if the doctor says my condition has improved.”
“Oh, don’t push yourself too hard! You should take the rest of the week off! Everything’s going smoothly! Don’t worry about us!”
You’re as transparent as air. Let’s pick some other topic. “I was curious, Miss Defoe. How did you ever come to choose teaching as a career?”
“Oh!” Claire’s face brightened in relief, and she became animated. “That’s quite a funny story! I had this boyfriend in high school, Fred. I called him Freddo. He wanted to be a teacher, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was thinking of starting a little kiosk in Seattle by the waterfront where I could sell my macramé flowerpot holders, and maybe some handmade jewelry, but I wanted to branch out into macramé wall hangings and pottery, too. Well, one day I was talking with Freddo, and he said I should think about teaching art, since I was so good at it. He was very encouraging, so I said . . .”
Blah blah blah. Angela’s thoughts drifted as Claire chattered away. Such an innocent thing you are. It’s a wonder you got this far in life. If Daria Morgendorffer is sheltered, you were locked away in a trunk in a closet. I never had your idealism. After the war, we had nothing but our lives. My rewards for running those little errands for the one-legged teacher weren’t much, but they helped—more than I knew then. My father worked as a common laborer, and we were all ashamed that my mother was forced to do laundry instead of keep house. Worse, my father became dispirited from all the tales of corruption in President Rhee’s government. His great faith in democracy was shaken. We are destroying ourselves, he muttered. What is wrong with us? Where is the justice? We have become our own worst enemy.
I do not recall that I cared about politics, one way or the other, unless it concerned Communism. My hatred for Communism grew every day, for what its deluded followers had done to my family, my city, my nation, and my people. It had torn my homeland in half and murdered millions. It had destroyed our national pride, ripped great clans in two and set them at each other’s throat, and made us the wretched of the earth. It was evil incarnate.
I lied about my age and was clearing tables and washing dishes in a beer hall when I turned sixteen. My parents thought I was cleaning homes; they would have beaten me senseless had they known where I really was. I was not attractive enough to be a waitress at a good-paying beer hall, one near a U.N. military base, though that defect also saved me from a rapid slide into prostitution. I was neither beautiful nor ugly, only forgettable. Mine was the face you would overlook first in any crowd. My parents sometimes talked of finding a husband for me, but the wealthy and hardworking men were long dead or long taken or not interested. Then, too, we were overwhelmed with just staying alive, and the three of us had been through so much together, we could not bear to think of breaking up our family.
I remember I was sweeping up the hall one evening, preparing to go home, when I overheard a group of university students talking at a corner table. They drank too much rice liquor to be prudent. General Park had taken over the government in a coup a few months before and autumn had come, so it must have been about September 1961. I was seventeen. The students talked loudly of overthrowing the junta and setting up a collectivist workers’ paradise, reunifying the south with the north. I gave no sign that I understood them or cared, and I continued cleaning. When I got home, I carefully wrote down all that I remembered of what the students said, what they looked like and what they called each other, and thus began my new career. It also destroyed what remained of my naive trust in youth and the power of education. I had never imagined that college students would turn to Communism, as if nothing at all had been learned in the two decades before. It shattered my faith, but my hatred drove me on.
In the following days, the students came back, more of them. I listened in on them as I worked, making more notes, and before long I knew everything there was to know about them: where they met for political meetings, what they plotted against the government, the name of the Democratic People’s Republic spy who gave them money for weapons and bombs. I wrote it all down and hid the papers at home, but I left a note on top for my parents to take the papers to the police if I was ever killed. I did not fear death, but I knew my records guaranteed a great reward from the police and the military for uncovering the subversives. It would be my last gift to my parents.
One cold night in December, I gathered my courage and told the manager of the beer hall about the traitors who drank his beer. I expected a reward. He slapped me so hard it threw me to the floor of his upstairs office. Get your ass back to work, girl, he shouted, and shut your hole about the customers. He kicked me again and again with his hard-toed shoes as I tried to shield myself. What our customers say is none of your concern, he shouted. I should kill you and get someone who won’t drive my business away. I should cut your throat, you worthless whore. He kicked me until he was tired, and then he walked back to his desk. Finish cleaning up before I kill you, he said, and then get out of here and never come back. I crawled out on my bruised and battered hands and knees, my left eye swollen shut and my cracked ribs driving knives into my lungs with every gasping breath.
I had made it to the top of the stairs and was reaching for the railing, to help myself crawl down to escape, when there was terrific shouting. The police had broken into the main hall. I heard a loud gunshot—then the air exploded. I covered my head with my hands, deafened by continuous bursts of automatic gunfire and the crashing of chairs and the trampling of feet and the screams, the inhuman screams—
Angela started. Heart racing, she stared at Claire and realized she was breathing very fast. Her face felt clammy and cold. She swallowed. “I must have—I guess I faded off or something,” she said, trying to breathe slower. “They have me taking this, I don’t know, some kind of medication, and I’m not myself, not . . . not myself.” I am not Li Joo-Hyun. That was another life. I am Angela Li, the principal of Lawndale High School. I am in a quiet hospital room deep in America, and I am safe now. I am safe. I am safe.
“Do you want me to get a doctor?”
“No, no. I just need to rest. Maybe that would be best. I should get some sleep.”
“Can I put that sack on the chair over there?”
“No, just leave it with me. I’ll . . . I’ll put it on the floor by my bed, so I can get it. Thank you for bringing it to me.”
Claire stood, looking uncertain. “If you’re sure you’re okay, then, I’ll—” She pointed to the door.
“That would be best.” Angela felt beads of cold sweat run down her face from her forehead. “I just need to rest for a while. Thank you.”
Claire Defoe waved goodbye and left, with a final concerned look back before closing the door.
Angela took a deep breath and held it, driving down her fear. When she exhaled, she lay back in exhaustion. It was too much to bother with putting the sack on the floor. She closed her eyes and lay still, barely breathing, and remembered the cold week when her life changed forever.
Whoever obeys the gods, to him they particularly listen.
—Homer, The Iliad
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
—William Shakespeare, King Lear
Somewhere in a forgotten box or file cabinet, in an old storage room in a South Korean law-enforcement or internal-security agency, was the first recording ever made of Li Joo-Hyun’s voice. Silent and alone, just short of her fifty-sixth birthday, Angela Li lay in her hospital bed and thought about that tape, the frightened seventeen-year-old girl captured on it, and that room, the windowless little room in which the tape was made, the room she occasionally saw in nightmares all her adult life.
Angela had never heard nor seen the tape, nor had she ever asked about it. She did not believe anyone had listened to the tape since shortly after it was made in December 1961. It was likely that the tape no longer existed, destroyed during one of the many internal purges of files that periodically afflicts government agencies short on storage space—or eliminating evidence of civil-rights violations. Angela understood this, as she was no stranger to destroying evidence. She had deleted many computer files, shredded and burned many documents, and erased many security-camera tapes at Lawndale High School when it suited her purposes. She was meticulous at covering up activities that would generate unwanted trouble if detected. She had learned from the best.
The first tape recording of her voice would generate much trouble if it were found, for many reasons. Its last storage space was likely in the headquarters of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which was only a few months old when the tape was made. Many similar tape recordings, Angela knew, had come and gone in the KCIA’s files. She had heard a few of them in her time, but only when necessary. Most such tapes began with the subjects protesting innocence to the interrogators, though some were stoic and silent, and a few were foolishly hostile. A couple even laughed. As the tapes progressed, however, they became more alike. Cries of pain invariably predominated the subjects’ responses to questioning, until the subjects were either removed or predictably confessed to a given crime.
Li Joo-Hyun’s tape recording would have been one of the unique ones. It began in much the same way as most others did. She had been kept for two days in a large holding cell she shared with about forty other people taken prisoner in the December raid on the beer hall. During those two days, many were taken from the cell and questioned. None of them were returned. No one knew if those who were taken away were freed, imprisoned, or dead. Li Joo-Hyun was not very religious despite her Buddhist parents, but as she was marched away from the holding cell, the beer-hall dishwasher with the forgettable face prayed for deliverance with the fervor of a mad convert.
She was taken under guard to a small windowless room. In the room was a chair, a bright ceiling light, a small table with a tape recorder and a seated man who operated it, and two men who asked questions. Li Joo-Hyun had been thoroughly searched before she was brought in and seated, and her hands were tied behind her with wire. The two interrogators were tired and bored. One asked her name, then asked where she lived, then asked if she was a Communist, then asked if she was not a Communist, why she was working at a beer hall infested with Communists. She protested that she had collected information on Communists to give to the government, but she was not one herself. The man called her a liar and threatened to beat her until she told the truth. He said if she confessed, things would be easier for her. She told him she had a large amount of information on the Communists at the beer hall, collected over a period of months, but it was at her parents’ home. She begged him to send someone to get the information; it would prove that she told the truth.
The man shouted that she was a liar, and she would suffer for it. She wasn’t even a Korean; her surname was Chinese. She said she was a Korean. Her father’s grandparents were Chinese, it was true—they were immigrants in the late 1800s who set up a small grocery in Seoul and did well until their store burned from a chimney fire. They lost everything and became laborers after that. Li Joo-Hyun, however, considered herself Korean in every way. She hated Communists and would do anything to pay them back for what they had done to her country. The interrogator laughed. She was a traitor and a spy, he said. Her parents would be arrested as accomplices and would be punished, just as she would be. Terrified, Li Joo-Hyun began to cry.
At this point, fifteen minutes into the interrogation, something different happened. The door to the room opened, and an old man came in. It was the old man who had taught school under the tent in the ruins of Seoul years before, the old man who sent Li Joo-Hyun on strange errands that she faithfully accomplished. He came in on crutches, but he had an air of authority about him. She learned later that he had been listening to her interrogation in a nearby room. She learned much later that he was with the KCIA.
Li Joo-Hyun, said the old man angrily, what have you done? You were my best student. Why have you fallen in with Communists?
She cried that she was innocent. She told him where her notes were hidden. She begged him to read those notes and spare her parents, who knew nothing of this.
The old man was furious. If this is so, he said, why did you not go to the police before now? If you knew of this treason, why did you not tell someone when you discovered the matter?
I wanted to find out where they got their orders and their money, she said, and I found the answer. The agent’s name and address is in the papers at my parents’ home. They mean to attack government buildings and overthrow General Park. I tried to tell the owner of the beer hall, but he did not believe me. He beat and kicked me because he wanted the Communists to keep drinking his beer and eating his food. Please send someone to get the papers. I swear it is all true. Do not hurt my parents, I beg you.
The old man stared at her, then ordered to one of the interrogators to take a squad of men and go to her parents’ home to get the papers. I hope you are telling the truth, said the old man, his face a rock wall. He ordered that she be put in a cell by herself and given a chance to clean herself up, to have fresh clothes and something to eat. This was done, and she waited alone for hours before several men came and freed her. They questioned her for hours more, then brought her to a room where only the old man was present, sitting behind a desk on which were her notes. He had her sit in a chair across from him.
You told the truth, said the old man. Your parents are unharmed. Li Joo-Hyun burst into tears when she heard this. Stop it, barked the old man. You did much good, but you should have come to the police sooner than this. There is much you discovered that we needed to know weeks ago. The old man sounded angry, but there was a touch of respect in his voice. He praised her diligence, her accurate eye and ear for detail, her careful records. You were well named, he said—Joo-Hyun for “wise jewel.” He said she would receive a large reward for her work, a very large reward, but if she wished it would be given in secret, so no one would know it was her who had turned over the information. She said the reward should go to her parents, but she did not want anyone else to know how they got it. The details would have to be worked out. Her parents were frantic and would have to be calmed, given a false story that they could swallow. They would in time get over this mix-up, as would she.
And the old man offered Li Joo-Hyun a job. The government needed someone like her, someone who could get inside close-knit cells of insurgents, saboteurs, and revolutionaries, then report on everything she had learned. The risks were plain. If she was discovered by the Communists, she would die, but only after a long period of unimaginable agony. The Communists were masters at torture. If she turned out to be a double agent and betrayed the government, she would also die—and she did not need the circumstances of her demise spelled out.
Li Joo-Hyun was overcome with surprise for a moment, but she took the offer on the spot, even after all she had been through. The police were fighting Communists, just as she was. It would be an ideal line of work. Her ill treatment was merely a misunderstanding, an accident now resolved. Justice had triumphed. All was forgiven.
But she did not forget the windowless little room. Though the room had been mopped before she came in, she had smelled blood in the air—fresh blood that stung her nose, and sweet-sick old blood that nauseated her. The marks on her wrists from the wire that bound them faded in days, but she never forgot her terror that the only people she loved, her parents, would suffer unspeakably—and she would be to blame for it.
As the long years passed, Angela thought less often about the little room, but she never forgot it. It made her careful and sharpened her sensibilities. She resolved that she would never send a person to that room who did not deserve it. People who didn’t like the government in Seoul did not automatically deserve to be in that room. Everyone in Korea had problems with the government—even government people had problems with the government. Her own father had problems with the government. She would not send him to the little room for that.
Communists and traitors, however, were a different matter. When she found them, Angela cast them into the hands of the police as if flinging them into the fiery mouth of Moloch. She did it without great emotion. It was a job, and it needed to be done.
And she was very good at her work. Within two years, she was an agent for the KCIA. Her parents had no idea where the extra money came from, but they wisely never spoke of it outside the family. They were even wiser to spend it carefully, so their sudden wealth did not become obvious. Her mother secretly feared her daughter was involved in something immoral. Her father secretly feared she was involved in something patriotic. Neither dared to bring it up to Li Joo-Hyun.
Angela Li lay in her hospital bed and wondered how many people had been imprisoned or killed through her actions. It was impossible to know for certain. She could not even make a reasonable guess.
She did not regret a moment of it. The Republic of Korea was free—troubled, for certain, and not without periods of darkness of its own making—but free. A small rock holds back a great wave, said Homer in The Iliad. Li Joo-Hyun had been just such a rock.
For a moment, she thought about the only person she had ever turned over to the police that she was sure had not been a Communist. She put a hand to the left side of her face, where the beer-hall owner had struck her almost forty years ago. She had put nothing about him in her original notes, knowing he cared only for profit and never gave politics a thought—but she added something when talking with the old man later, and the old man had believed her, and the beer-hall owner was never seen again.
Angela Li gently rubbed her left cheek. She did not smile when she meditated on the beer-hall owner’s fate, but she felt a touch of satisfaction. Her mind wandered, and she recalled that Lawndale High’s football team had a saying about payback, which they chanted when they went up against a rival team that had beaten them in the past. It is true, Angela reflected. Payback is indeed a mother.
And when she thought of that, she smiled.
A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any
other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline,
for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands.
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process
he does not become a monster.
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Angela Li was jarred from her reverie when the door to her hospital room opened wide. The nurse, Miss Ross, flashed a smile as she entered. “Hi, there!” she said with businesslike cheer. “I’m back to finish up your vital signs. Did you take a nap?”
“Only for a moment,” said Angela in irritation. “You woke me up.” Go away and maybe I can call the school superintendent about this contract problem. I should have done it already. The medication and my low energy level are making it hard to keep my mind from drifting off.
“Sorry about that. What’s in the sack?”
Angela realized the paper sack Claire had brought was still at her side on the bed. She sat up quickly and peered in, then rolled the top down to hide the contents. “Oh, my cell phone, laptop, some other things to keep me occupied. Is the doctor coming back to see me?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the nurse, picking up a small device on the desk. “Doctor Robertson got called away for the rest of the afternoon. He said he wants to see you tomorrow morning, though.”
Tomorrow might be too long a time, if Superintendent Cartwright is thinking of terminating my agreement with Ultra-Cola. “Is there a chance I might be released tonight?”
“Open your mouth,” said the nurse, holding an electronic thermometer. Angela grudgingly did so, wondering what would happen if she bit down on the plastic tube. The nurse pulled the device out moments later when it beeped. “Normal,” she said, disposing of the thermometer cover and putting the device away. “Getting out tonight depends. I suppose you can sign yourself out under the rules, but we’d rather you stayed in until a doctor cleared you. You look like you’re doing a lot better today, but you were pretty tired earlier. I wouldn’t drive home right now if I were you.”
“I don’t think my car’s here,” Angela said. It’s probably still in the high-school parking lot. It will be safe there. No one’s going to steal it or even key the paint without at least three monitors along the parking-lot fence recording the deed, and everyone knows it.
“By the way, you have a visitor,” said the nurse, now taking Angela’s blood pressure. “She’s waiting outside. I think she’s one of your students.”
“Oh?” Angela looked at the door. Who would ever come in to see me on a Saturday, unless I told her to do it? I’ll see her briefly, then call the superintendent. “Could you send her in?”
Miss Ross removed the pressure cuff from Angela’s arm and finished scribbling a note in the medical chart. “Shall do,” she said, walking for the door. “Buzz for help if you need to get out of bed. You may be unsteady on your feet for a while.”
The nurse opened the door to leave and called, to someone outside, “You may come in now.” A moment later, an African-American teenager in a white blouse and beige slacks stepped into the doorway. “Ms. Li?” she said. “Am I bothering you?”
A smile broke over Angela’s face. “Miss Landon!” she cried. “Come in at once!”
Jodie Landon returned the smile as she walked up to Angela’s bedside. “I brought you a card and a gift,” Jodie said, handing over an envelope—and a can of Ultra-Cola with yellow and blue ribbons, for Lawndale’s school colors, tied around it.
Angela laughed. “Exactly what I need,” she said, taking the envelope and can. “I have a bit of a caffeine-withdrawal headache, and as you know, this is the only cure!” She sat up and popped the top on the can, taking a long, lovely drink. “Ahhh!” she sighed, lowering the can. “Looking forward to graduation, Miss Landon?”
Jodie’s smile took on a tired character. “Oh, yeah. My father said he would throw a party for me on graduation night. It’s probably the only relaxation I’ll have before I get to Turner this fall.”
You’re probably right, Angela thought. She knew perfectly well of the pressure that millionaire inventor Andrew Landon put on his oldest daughter to succeed. He had called Angela on numerous occasions about Jodie’s progress in school. “What plans do you have for the summer? Taking a well-earned vacation to a lovely beach somewhere?” I’ll bet not.
Jodie’s cheek twitched, and her smile disappeared. “No vacation this time. My summer’s already spoken for. My parents signed me up to do volunteer work for the Black American History Museum at Turner University. I think I’m supposed to be a greeter and tour guide. I leave a week or two after graduation.”
I knew it. “I see. Well, your parents must be extremely proud of you.”
Jodie nodded wearily. “It’ll be Rachel’s turn after me,” she said, referring to her younger sister. “I hope she’s up to it.”
Not likely. I’ve already heard about Rachel’s attitude problems and mediocre work from the middle-school principal. “Speaking of being up to it,” said Angela brightly, “I have a surprise for you, too. You’re going to be the class valedictorian for graduation! I was going to tell you yesterday, but—well, anyway, congratulations!”
Jodie blinked. She did indeed appear surprised, though not terribly. “I thought Daria Morgendorffer would get to do that,” she said.
She would have, yes, except for her disrespectful mouth, her unsociable behavior, and a few Cs in Phys Ed. “No, it’s definitely going to be you. You’re the only student with a solid four-point-oh, and your community activities and extracurriculars run to about six pages in single-spaced type. You’ll have to make a speech, but keep it to ten minutes because we’ll be short on time. Just talk about what you’ve learned at Laaawndale High, and bring me—I mean, bring your school more glory, if you could!”
Jodie, lost in thought, shook herself to wakefulness again. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice less tired. “Thank you, Ms. Li. I really appreciate the honor.”
A perfect response. Jodie Abigail Landon: tall, black, and eighteen years old, bearing the world on your weary shoulders but ready for more. All blessings and praise to your father, whom you no doubt regard as rigid, uncompromising, and incapable of understanding you. He taught you to be and do your best. One day you will see it. You are brilliant, beautiful, capable of anything—and respectful. The manners of everyone else in this school, added together, could not equal yours. I won’t see your like again.
“No,” said Angela. “No, dear. Thank you, Miss Landon. You are my best student, my best student ever.” As my old teacher said I was for him, so you are for me, but more so, much more so.
“Oh,” said Jodie. She appeared genuinely surprised this time, and she blushed. “Why, thank you.”
“You bring honor to Lawndale with your very existence,” Angela continued. “Since the day you entered ninth grade, you’ve given me much to brag about to the superintendent.” Whom I should call as soon as possible. “It was not an easy journey, Miss Landon, but you overcame all obstacles and proved yourself worthy of any challenge. I have every faith in you and your future. You will always bring glory to your old school.”
Jodie’s blush deepened. For the first time Angela could recall, Jodie was at a lost for words. She looked down, licking her lips, trying to think of something to say.
I wonder if you are thinking of how hard it was for you to live up to your father’s expectations. I wonder if you are thinking of what you gave up to make it to the top. If only you knew. You had it easier than I, Miss Landon. I am glad you never went through what I did to survive, to get to where I am now. You will go on to surpass me a thousand times. For that, I have no regrets.
“Thank you,” said Jodie. She wiped her eyes. “I need to go. My mother’s in the waiting room. We’re shopping for clothes at the Mall of the Millennium today.”
Angela grinned. “Go forth and conquer, Miss Landon. I’ll see you on Monday.”
Jodie nodded. Still wiping her eyes, she turned and made her way out of the room, waving goodbye as she left.
Angela waved back. Enjoy the surprise one-year scholarship you have waiting for you at Turner, she thought, and a personal invitation to join the most influential academic sorority there is. I twisted a few arms to get these for you, but you are worth it. In return, your millionaire father—who knows who got these gifts for you—can be counted on to donate a very sizeable amount to our June fundraiser for a new computer lab, so I won’t have to bleed any money for it from the budget. Everyone gets a good back scratch, and I get the upgrade for that satellite transmission jammer.
Moved to action, Angela sat up in bed, drank more of her Ultra-Cola, and opened the sack that Claire had brought. Her cell phone was fully charged, so she put a call in to the superintendent’s home. His answering machine picked up instead. Angela left her name and cell phone number, asking him to call her at once. Well, that was a waste of time, she thought. May as well get my other projects going.
A minute later, she had her wireless laptop up and running. She opened the jar of kimchee for a treat. I wish I’d remembered to ask for a fork or some chopsticks when I called Claire, she thought as she plucked a bit of garlic-and-hot-pepper-infused pickled cabbage from the jar and ate it. It was like eating a bomb. Her face got hot and prickly, and her sinuses burst and drained. Delicious. She licked her fingers and sealed the jar, setting it aside as she sniffed. The spices made her nose run, but it was worth it. She got a box of tissues from a bedside table and blew her nose, feeling vaguely guilty about it though no one else was in the room—not that anyone in this country would have minded, of course. Americans were wonderful, if thoughtlessly rude. Wiping her hands on another tissue, Angela pecked at her computer, getting into her Internet account.
If only I’d had one of these when I was working for the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. She sat back and waited for the screen to show her e-mail. It was all spam, except for a few news reports she had arranged to be sent to her when key words were mentioned. Her fingers hovered over the computer’s keys, but after a moment her hands fell into her lap. I probably wouldn’t have had time to use it, given all I had to do. I can just see that straight-arrow attorney, Helen Morgendorffer, when she was an idiot teenager in hippie garb, a marijuana cigarette in her mouth and a protest sign in her hands. Me, I wore threadbare uniforms and worked on the janitorial staff at various universities, mopping floors and taking abuse from faculty—all the while reading papers in people’s trash, listening at doors and windows, installing microphones in ventilation ducts, taking pictures, and reporting back to my superiors on all I learned. I hunted down traitors, subversives, and saboteurs, pausing for moments only when famous Americans were shot or spaceships landed on the moon. Helen, I am sure, listened to Beatles records, complained about her homework, and told her parents her life was hard indeed.
I stayed away from politics, but it did not stay away from me. I was furious when President Park began diplomatic relations with Japan, but I was glad to see my country pull itself out of its long slump and begin to flex its industrial muscles throughout the world. I was proud to see Korean troops sent to Vietnam, but as the war dragged on, I began to fear that the Americans had forgotten how to fight to win. The growing deification of Kim Il Sung in the north was madness, a constant pressure on my nerves, and I prayed in vain for him to be put out of our national misery.
Worse, I had differences with my KCIA managers over exactly who were the real enemies of the state. The KCIA was casting too broad a net. I was interested only in the Communists, but the KCIA wanted anyone and everyone who spoke out against the government. I pretended to go along, but I was careful to restrict my interests to rooting out real traitors, not every fool student or teacher who had a head full of naïve ideals and a gripe to air. My mother never asked about my work, preferring blessed ignorance to the damnation of truth, but I saw in my father’s face how much he feared for me.
Still, I struggled on. I was very patient. I knew my cause was just. I remembered what an American general once said, I think it was Omar Bradley, that in war there was no second prize for the runner-up. I was still fighting the good fight.
And then came the cold, bad week.
Angela roused herself before she fell into the clutches of depression. Her fingers tapped the computer’s keys and opened a news-alert e-mail. A website that analyzed worldwide military news reported that North Korea was developing a more powerful satellite launcher than the intermediate-range Taepo Dong 1 ballistic missile used for its failed 1998 orbital attempt. Angela nodded. She had suspected as much. Missiles and satellites were beyond her normal spheres of knowledge, but of late her interest in them had been stirred. Only North Korean assassins and spy satellites could reach her now, this deep in America. No one understood why she had turned Lawndale High into a fortress. It wasn’t necessary that anyone else knew of her fears, only that they signed off on her acquisitions.
Her fingers again lingered over the keys, staring at her computer screen. In her mind, it was the last week of January 1968, when razor-cold winds swept through Seoul and the television carried nothing but the worst of news. Over thirty North Korean commandos hijacked a bus in Seoul one evening and nearly got into the Blue House, the president’s residence, on a suicide mission to kill President Park. Many dozens of people died in the hideous firefight that followed their detection. Li Joo-Hyun had barely recovered from that shock when the North Koreans attacked and captured an American spy ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo—and the Americans let them get away with it. Reeling, she then watched the beginning of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, treated to the spectacle of Viet Cong running wild in downtown Saigon, blowing up buildings and killing soldiers as if America had no idea how to stop them at all.
The Americans did eventually manage to stop the offensive and destroy the Viet Cong, but the Yanks lost their will to fight. The crew of the Pueblo was eventually repatriated, but under shameful circumstances. The North Korean assassins were slain, but further incursions occurred, no end of them, and Kim Il Sung grinned from the TV screen and newspapers as if sensing his eventual triumph. The KCIA’s response: arrest more student protesters, any and all of them, Communist or not.
What is the good of my life? What is the good of my work? Months, later, the cleaning woman stood in a secluded place in her hometown and looked out over the spectacular Han River valley and the silent mountains that loomed all around. Budding trees and early flowers did not help. Something inside her had broken, and no glue could put it together again. She requested and got a KCIA reassignment to the Demilitarized Zone, far from any city or university, where she looked for Communists among peasant villagers and local government offices. She found very few. She no longer cared.
She waited until her mother and father both turned sixty, a major event in the life of every Korean that she felt obligated to personally oversee, as she was her parents’ only living relative. Shortly afterward, she turned in her paperwork to go to America. The ostensible reason was to look for subversives among the Koreans who were already in America, as visitors or new citizens. The actual reason was to get as far away from Korea as possible and start a new life without constant daily reminders of martial law, election fraud, and censorship. Wandering the halls of universities at night had allowed her to pry into textbooks, and the idea of teaching was entering her head. Better that in America than be married and tied down in Korea; she was used to being on her own, living dangerously, and there was no future for her in her male-dominated homeland. Her parents were secure, living off the interest from a considerable bank account Li Joo-Hyun had created for them with her pay and bonuses for spy-catching. She knew of nothing else to do.
Her paperwork was approved. Her birth date and birth place were revised in official files, so she could enter college in America as an eighteen year old, and she requested and got a name change, her true name disappearing in government files to further severe her old life from her new. She applied for and was accepted at UCLA in Berkley, entering the education department as a freshman student. She was given a KCIA contact in Los Angeles, altered papers and passport, a bit of money, and a single small suitcase of clothing and toiletries. She already spoke English well, as did many Koreans. She got on a plane and hours later landed in a new world, in the spring of the year 1970.
“And here I am,” said Angela. She blinked and came to her senses, still sitting up in bed in the hospital with the computer waiting for a command on her outstretched legs. She had no idea what to do next. After a moment, she closed her e-mail account and clicked over to the Lawndale High School website. The blue-and-yellow page opened, with growling lions and a football bouncing across the top of the screen. It was still there, still secure—her adopted home.
The door opened. Reflexively, Angela shut down her computer and put on a false smile when she looked up. “Yes?” she asked pleasantly.
“You have another visitor,” said Nurse Ross. “A Mister Cartwright. Should I send him in?”
For mere vengeance I would do nothing. . . .
But for the security of the future I would do everything.
—Senator (later President) James A. Garfield, 1865
Big Brother is watching you.
—George Orwell, 1984
“Cartwright? He’s here?” repeated Angela Li faintly. The superintendent! Here! “Oh! Eh, certainly! Send him in, please!” Angela quickly adjusted her hospital clothing, smoothed her black bangs with a hand (A brush! I forgot to ask Claire for a hairbrush!), and straightened as she sat up in bed.
A moment later, Carter County School Superintendent Horace Cartwright came in, wearing a sports shirt and slacks instead of his usual business suit and tie. He gave Angela a crooked smile as he carefully shut the door behind him. “Ms. Li, good to see you again! I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“No, no, come on in! Have a seat!” Angela thrust the closed laptop into its paper sack, along with the cell phone and everything else within reach. “I’m doing much better this morning! Whew! Can’t imagine what got into me yesterday. Food poisoning, I suspect. Maybe an electrolyte imbalance, who knows. I’ll have to watch my diet very closely after this. So! Um, how are you?”
Mr. Cartwright ignored the chairs in the room, standing comfortably near the foot of her bed with his hands in his pants pockets. “Fine, thank you. We were worried about you yesterday. You didn’t seem to be yourself.”
“Well, like I said, it was probably food poisoning, maybe carbon monoxide, a virus, something, whatever! I’ll have the maintenance staff get on it right away. Can’t have it spread to the children!”
Mr. Cartwright nodded. He did not appear concerned as his gaze roamed the room. “All that matters is that you get back on your feet again,” he said. “Oh—I saw Jodie Landon in the hall on my way in. She said she dropped by to check on you. Great kid, Jodie. God bless her. She’s going a long way in the world, a very long way.”
“Oh, she is, yes! My best pupil. A credit to the entire teaching staff at Laaawndale High! And, of course, her parents.”
“She is the best,” said Mr. Cartwright absently. He looked out the window of Angela’s room. “I was in your office yesterday afternoon, after you . . . left for the day. I looked for that contract with Ultra-Cola. I think we need to look at some changes to it.”
“Cha—” Angela’s heart skipped a beat. “Cha-changes, of course. Nothing’s perfect. Everything could use a little improvement, certainly. I was just saying—”
“That was a brilliant move on your part to get the funding you needed to keep your school going, Ms. Li,” said Mr. Cartwright, still looking out the window. “These are desperate times, and only innovative leaders will take the risks to gain fiscal survival when all others around them wither and starve. You have to respect the will of the taxpayers, even when it . . . doesn’t seem to make any sense, like when they vote against a property-tax increase to fund overdue school improvements. It’s insane.” He turned and looked Angela in the face. “I’m speaking strictly off the record, you understand.”
“Of course,” said Angela, who had no idea what to say because she had no idea where this was going. “Of course.”
Mr. Cartwright sniffed and looked out the window again. “I think the Ultra-Cola people, and maybe Mr. Lamm and his marketing firm in particular, have not been, um, respectful of your position, Ms. Li. I think they’ve tried to take advantage of your school spirit and desperate circumstances, and they’ve forced you to accept certain conditions in your contract that aren’t in your, or your school’s, best interests. I’d like to see that changed.” He looked directly at Angela again. “You’re the best principal I have. I’m not going to lose you, if I can possibly help it.”
Angela now had no idea at all what was up. Cartwright had never said anything like this to her before. “Thank you,” she said in a daze.
“You’re welcome.” He looked around the room again. “We’re going to have our attorneys renegotiate the contract. We’ll take out the parts where Ultra-Cola gets to advertise on school property, except in traditionally approved ways, like in the school paper, that sort of thing. We might be able to keep the same level of payments they were making you as well, because our lawyers don’t think Ultra-Cola—or Mr. Lamm, to be honest—played fair with you. We’d like to have some compensation for that. If you’re up to it, I’d like for you to come by my office next Tuesday and look over some proposed changes to the contract. I think you’ll be pleased with the result. It will be a lot less of a headache for you, and the other schools can copy your example without being put through the intolerable pressures to which you were subjected.” He was at the desk now. He flipped through a travel magazine left there, looking at the pictures.
“Okay,” said Angela. She felt like
she was in some kind of Never-Never Land. She had been positive Cartwright
would discipline her for her bizarre actions during her breakdown. She had even
feared he would fire her. This, however, was— “Whatever you think is best, Mr.
Cartwright. I’m right behind you, all the way.”
“Good.” He sniffed again and let the magazine fall shut. He put his hands back in his pockets. “You have Daria Morgendorffer at your school, too, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, lingering over the word. She was about to add some criticisms of the girl, but something made her wait and listen.
“Smart girl, that one. Is she your valedictorian, or is Jodie Landon?”
“Miss Landon is.”
“Good. Daria’s up there, too. Not so many extracurriculars, but her head’s in the right place. Maybe she could get some kind of lesser award at graduation. Something in recognition of her, um, academic excellence, despite . . . you know, whatever else. I’ll leave it up to you.”
“I’ll get on it,” said Angela. “First thing Monday.”
“No rush,” said Mr. Cartwright. “We have three months till graduation, but something for her would be nice. She deserves it.” He paused. “I was stationed in Korea, you know. Back in the mid-to-late seventies. I was in the Army, at a little post up by the DMZ.” He shook his head. “Bad place to be. Crazy time, what with Park getting shot dead by the head of his own, what was it called, Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and that other general taking over the government right after I left. Crazy time for everyone.”
The world began to slow down. I know what happened, but I was not a part of that plot. It was because of that craziness that the KCIA stopped bothering me in America, because it was getting torn apart in Seoul, and I was finally rid of it in my life. But what are you getting at, Mister Cartwright? What is all this about? “I had no idea you were there,” said Angela with care. “I’m from Korea, too. Seoul, actually.”
He nodded, looking at the magazine. “So I’ve heard. I remember you said something about that to me when you took over at Lawndale.” He smiled. “That must have been quite a shock to you, when you came over to America.”
Angela nodded back. It was, it was. The most powerful of nations made up of the rudest of people, none of whom ate rice. All of them believed if you looked Asian, you were a Japanese martial-arts expert. All stared at you when they talked, instead of looking away like polite people. They blew their noses and deep kissed in public, I couldn’t believe it, and they cursed their government whenever they felt like it, even for no reason at all. The women dressed like prostitutes, and the men like criminals and tramps. No one held a shred of loyalty or respect for higher authority, and no one had any sense of discipline or order. Teenagers openly supported Communism and anarchy in willful ignorance of the consequences, and no one gave a damn about what happened outside his or her own home, much less outside one’s own city, state, or nation. Oh, and people legally marrying their cousins, their own relatives—I thought I would claw my eyes out. Yes, coming to America was quite a shock, I agree, but it was better than Korea. Here, at least, I could find a real life, and after I freed myself from the KCIA, I did. I found a real life here. A good life.
Mr. Cartwright looked around the room again. “Do I smell kimchee?”
“Oh—yes, I have a little of it.” Angela reached over and picked up the jar. “A, um, friend brought it over.”
Mr. Cartwright grinned. “I love that stuff,” he said. “Started eating it when I was at the DMZ. My wife hates it, so I buy it and hide it in the garage, so I can eat it there.”
Angela smiled. It was a frightened smile.
“When I was in Korea,” said Mr. Cartwright, walking from the desk over to the little room’s window, “I met a lot of people in Seoul. I had to go there every month for meetings. Usual thing. I was with an intelligence-gathering unit by the border. Boring stuff, really, not at all the kind of James Bond thing most people think of. We did electronic eavesdropping, listening in to radio transmissions.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to talk about it. I’m not giving away any secrets by saying it. Everyone’s got a job. Anyway, when I was in Seoul, I met this gentleman, an old guy in his seventies. He lost a leg in an accident just before the war, the Korean War. Used to be a teacher in Seoul, right after the war for a while.”
Time stopped. Angela stared at the superintendent.
“Nice old man. We kept in touch for a while, until he died around Christmas in nineteen ninety-two, I think it was. You’d just come in as Lawndale’s principal. I remembered—” He looked at Angela. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” said Angela, covering her face. I cannot cry now, I cannot cry now. Wait, just wait a little longer until he leaves. It won’t be long. She wiped her eyes and looked up. “My sinuses,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I’m fine.”
He continued to look at her for a moment longer, then looked out the window again, down at the grounds below. “Sorry,” he said. “I told him about you, said you had an excellent record and you were from Korea, too. I didn’t imagine you’d know each other, of course. I was just making conversation when I wrote. He wrote back to me, and he said something funny.” He hesitated, then looked again at Angela. “He said he had a feeling about you, just from what I said, that you would be the best principal the county ever had. Dedicated, devoted, determined, the best. He didn’t want me to tell you about my writing to him, but I guess it doesn’t matter now. It was right after that that I heard he’d passed on. I felt terrible about it. He was a good man.” He looked at the floor with a solemn face. Neither spoke for several moments.
“You’ve done an excellent job with your school’s security,” he went on. “Maybe you overdid it in some places, like the bulletproof skylights over the indoor pool, all the security cameras, but I don’t know. The times we live in. Kids with guns, nutcases everywhere—you have to be ready for anything, or else it’ll come and all you’ll have left are the regrets. Better to be prepared, think like a Boy Scout, do what you have to do. It’s the best thing for everyone, even if no one else gets it but us. You’ve done a great job.”
Those skylights will stop everything up to a rocket-propelled grenade. Angela brushed away a tear before it could get more than halfway down her cheek. “Thank you. I do my best.”
“That, you do,” he said. “Some kids and their parents, they think schools are becoming too much like prisons. Kind of silly when you think of it, since we let the prisoners go home every day.”
“Exactly,” said Angela. “Not really like prisons at all. Just playing it safe.” Safe in case a North Korean assassin comes looking for me one day, to even up the old score. I put hundreds of them away, the bastards. If they ever found me here, if they learned that Angela Li was Li Joo-Hyun, they’d want payback for sure, and it would be a mother. I may have to move into the school in time. The place is a fortress as is. I almost live there now, so it wouldn’t be that much of a change.
Silence again reigned for a few seconds.
“Ms. Li,” said Mr. Cartwright at last, looking up, “do you really need a satellite transmission jammer?”
Angela gasped. Oh, my God—don’t take away that! You don’t understand—they might use it to find me here! They can pick up my voice over radios and cell phones, match it to their files—they’d know it was me, Li Joo-Hyun, the agent who destroyed so many of their networks and plots in the south! You can’t—you—oh, God, please don’t! “It seemed to be . . . what I mean to say is, you know, I, uh, I thought—”
“It’s to jam transmissions from North Korean satellites, right? North Korean spy satellites? Assuming they can ever get one off the ground, I mean.”
Terror seized Angela by the heart and froze the blood in her veins. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
He sniffed. “From what I saw of your setup on the roof, you could interfere with just about any kind of satellite. You’ve got all the hardware. You send a satellite the wrong kind of signal, it’ll fire its motors and spin too fast and tear itself apart, or put itself in the wrong orbit, or reenter and burn up, or shut itself off, or do any one of a hundred things to screw itself up. Turns itself into a billion-dollar flying wreck, just like that. Happens all the time, mostly by accident. Can’t do it so easily to a really sophisticated satellite, one with a little artificial intelligence or really complex coding, but it can still be done, if you know what kind of messages to send.”
“I suppose,” Angela whispered after a pause.
Mr. Cartwright looked out the window. “That old man thought the world of you, Ms. Li. I could tell.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I have some contacts back at the Pentagon. I know some people who might find it interesting, sort of as a little test, to see if you can screw around with a hostile satellite from the ground. Totally unofficial, you understand. Off the records, not a word. Just fooling around. The North Koreans don’t have anything up there yet, but the Chinese do. Wouldn’t hurt to try a little experiment, maybe, just to see if it can be done.” He looked back at Angela. “Some wars never end, do they?”
“No,” she said dumbly. “No, they never do.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll get the upgrade for your jammer by the end of the month. Save your budget money to fix up your library instead. The Pentagon boys might dig up some operational codes worth trying, too. We’ll have to stop talking about it in the open, of course. It wouldn’t hurt to make anything you said about it up to this point into a joke, if anyone asks. Everyone knows you wouldn’t have a real jammer on your school’s roof. That would cause big problems. Huge problems. It’s just a joke, then, all right?”
“Excellent. Great football team you’ve got, too,” he said. “The rest of the country thinks Carter County schools are insane, playing football three-hundred sixty-five days a year, but hey—” He smiled “—we sure love football, don’t we?”
“Yes,” said Angela. The strength was coming back into her voice. “Yes, we do. We do love our football.”
“Carter County’s being featured in Sports Illustrated in a few months, by the way. Get your people ready for it. Some reporters are coming by your school in two weeks to take pictures, interview the team and the coach, certainly to interview you, too. I’ll make sure of that. Carter County, home of the year-round football crazies, or something like that. I don’t know what they’ll call the piece.”
“We’ll be ready for them!”
“I know you will,” said Mr. Cartwright. “I know you will.” He checked his watch. “Hey, I’ve got to go run some errands for the wife. Sue sends her best.”
“Thank you so much for dropping in, Mister Cartwright.”
“Not a problem. Had to come by and check on my best principal.” He flashed a broad smile and reached for the door handle—and paused. He bit his lip, thinking.
“Ms. Li,” he said, “were you always known as Angela?”
Three seconds passed.
“Of course,” she said. “Always. My parents . . . had a thing about Americans. Because of the war.”
Mr. Cartwright nodded. “I thought so,” he said. He looked up again and smiled. “It was good talking with you about football. Have a good day, Ms. Li. See you on Monday, if you’re up to it.”
“I’ll be there,” she said. She made herself grin. “I won’t let down the students and faculty at Laaawndale High!”
Mr. Cartwright nodded. The door closed behind him.
For a long moment, Angela Li stared at her room in disbelief. In time, though, Angela Li faded, and it was Li Joo-Hyun who put her hands over her eyes and broke down and wept for the teacher who looked out for her, to death and beyond.