I signaled for her to remove it. She did.
I gestured for her to pull off her hat. I took it and set it beside her.
We looked at each other.
Shit, she was a beautiful little thing. Long raven hair pulled into a low ponytail. Shy eyes and long eyelashes. High cheekbones with that almost inflated turgidness around the eyes that some East Asian people have.
If races and ethnicities have certain traits, then some people exemplified them all. When I looked at Kwan Min-Ji, I saw a pureblood Korean woman. Hers was the kind of face and body the regime might use on a propaganda poster to represent all North Korean women—beautiful, young, full-breasted, and innocent.
Turning away from these thoughts, I held up the shirt. She took it from me, and I turned around before she could even ask.
A moment later, she whispered my name.
I turned back. Seeing what she had done, I gently said, "No no. Backward." The hood was in front. I signaled for her to turn the shirt around.
She did so immediately, slipping her arms inside the sleeves and rotating the shirt around.
I showed her the facemask-style hoodie, and she drew it over herself, pulling the mouth and nose covering down under her chin.
Next, I held up the pants. She took them and rose.
I spun away.
A few moments later, she called for me. I handed her the socks. After she pulled them on, she slipped on her shoes, and I showed her how the sleeves of her shirt pulled over her thumbs and covered the hands up to the knuckles.
She held up her old clothes, asking something in Korean.
They would not be needed, and we were leaving the country tonight. I mimicked digging.
She immediately understood and, together, we made quick work of unearthing a small hole and burying her old clothes.
While she covered the hole, I fished out the paint stick and my camouflage netting. I called her to me, and I coated the ends of her fingers and a mask around her eyes in dark green. She accepted this with patience.
Next, I unbuttoned several of the loops on her shirt and pants, attaching the netting there so that she wouldn't form the silhouette of a human.
She was ready.
Time on deck? 0331.
Time enough to check my map and determine my next heading.
The quickest way out of country was straight south, but from here that would take us directly into the heart of the DPRK's Joint Security Area defenses. Hell, there was a fucking regimental barracks two kilometers due south of me.
No, we were heading mainly east. A 3.1-kilometer jaunt east-southeast through these hills would get me clear of the barracks and ready to turn south. The route had shitty terrain, but great concealment.
"Min-Ji, follow me."
"Fwo-lo," she said.
She reached for my hand, but I brushed it aside. "Too slow."
She didn't understand, but I moved out anyway.
Twice I stopped to warn her about sound when she made mistakes—breaking a fallen twig underfoot and allowing a leafy branch to snap noisily off of her body.
She adapted reasonably well.
I stopped frequently to listen and to scan with my NVGs. Distant vehicles three times. Only once was I certain of hearing human voices, but they sounded indoors. I veered away from the source of the chatter and continued.
We came to a stop at 0438.
Another 2000 meters to reach the border. We were going to make it.
The key was the first breach—the Civilian Control, CC, fence line on the North Korean side. That was about 800 meters southeast of us. At our pace, it would put us there at 0500. It would still be dark, and that was the whole shebang right there. I needed darkness to get us through that fence.
Once on the other side, we could make our final 750-meter trek to the DMZ fence line, arriving sometime around 0535. Once the DMZ fence line was breached, we could take a nice, slow pace through any minefields, and cross the South Korean border, arriving just after dawn. Not perfect—a little late—but doable.
Before any of that could occur, I needed to get us across the valley.
It was low, wet ground, great for irrigation ditches and farming, but highly exposed for us. At the lowest point, there ran two small creeks, one coming from the north and one from the east, that joined to form a stream. We needed to cross it. Once over, we would need to follow the eastern creek until we got back into higher ground—about 750 meters total.
Before starting the mission, my map recon of the area suggested that the eastern creek had a good wall-like bank on the south side. I imagined once we crossed, we would be able to stay low and travel in the defilade of the bank as we maneuvered through the low ground.
With my NVGs on, I found the place I wanted, the intersection of the two small creeks. It was about 80 meters from us, but we would need to cross a road and an open field to get there.
I had Min-Ji sit and wait while I scouted the road.
Clear north and south, so I listened.
Hustling back to her, I took her hand and we darted across the road. Then, I began low-crawling.
She followed; I was starting to appreciate this young woman's adaptive abilities more and more.
A 60-meter low-crawl is no bullshit to a civilian. She was tired, resting beside the first creek in the low shrubs and bushes. I scouted ahead.
What I found was a relief. The first creek was jumpable, and I believed the second one would be too.
Why not go over a bridge? There were few in the area and all roads this close to the CC fence line were too often patrolled. It was way too dangerous—the noise of the gravel and the exposure. "Do not be seen," Deacon had told me.
I led Min-Ji to the edge and mimed the jump. Then, using my fingers I tried to ask if she thought she could jump it.
She nodded and said, "Ye—Yes."
I went first, backing up a few steps and then leaping. I landed well. The footing on the other side was secure. Turning, I watched her do the same.
Over, no problem. I caught her, but it was unnecessary. She cleared it with three feet to spare.
We crawled to the second creek. There were rocks on the edge of both sides, but it was narrower than the first one.
Piece of cake.
First, though, I donned my NVGs and checked the cover because either side of this creek would work.
There was no question: we had to cross. The side we were on was a flat marsh. The other side had a raised, sloping ledge about four feet high.
I mimed and whispered, "Jump again."
I went first, landing easily.
She backed up, took two quick steps, and crumpled instantly into the water. She never got off the ground. Her ankle just rolled underneath her with a wet crunch. She didn't even scream.
Maybe it had been a loose rock under her foot; maybe she had weak ankles. Didn't matter, she plummeted straight down into the water with a huge splash, completely submerged.
If her fall had been a video with no context for the viewer, it might have made several hilarious clip compilations. But, I had the context. My instantaneous thought was "We're fucked."
But I needed to act. I planted one hand on the bank and pointed my toes so as to slip into the stream quickly and silently. The cold water immersed me from the neck down.
Deep fucking creek, I thought. Cold mother fucking water.
I scooped her into my arms, placed her on the bank, and climbed out. Then, I pulled her toward the four-foot ledge.
She winced in pain, clutching her ankle with both hands. I drew them aside and looked.
Oh, yeah, we're fucked, I thought.
Even in the darkness through a wet sock, I could see the swelling had already begun.
Security first, I reminded myself. I listened carefully. I peered over the ledge, scanning a circle around us with the NVGs set to infrared.
Clear for now, I said to myself, but that splash had been loud.
I dug into my pack and drew out my first aid kit, seizing the wrap coiled inside. With utmost care, I removed Min-Ji's sopping shoe and sock. Bluish-purple blood bruising appeared just under the surface of her skin. I wrapped her ankle as tightly as I could.
Finished, I glanced at her.
She no longer cared about her ankle; she shivered in cold.
It was 45 degrees. The water of that creek could not have been much warmer.
Fucking hopeless, I thought.
Min-Ji could not possibly walk. Even if she could, there was no way her shoe would fit onto that foot with the swelling I saw plus the wrap. Barefoot over this ground? No way.
I would have to carry her, and that blew the entire timeline to hell. At best, we might be able to make it out in two night's travel, but in the interim, her absence would be discovered. All hell would break loose on the border. There would be search patrols and helicopters.
Plus, she was sopping wet. Hell, we both were. Exposure would slow down and seize up our muscles in no time unless we got warm and dry.
An idea crept into my mind, cold and clear.
My right hand slid down to my utility belt, and I felt the knife there. My thumb teased at the button that held it in place.
I could kill her, I realized. Right here. Right now. Cover her mouth and slide the blade under her ribcage and into her heart.
No one would know. I could make my way over the border tonight. There was still time. Even wet, I could do it alone. I would tell Deacon she never showed up, must have gotten caught.
"Ski-pa go?" she asked in a whisper.
She looked innocent, beautiful, and miserable.
"Fuck it," I hissed, and I knelt to get her onto my back, piggyback-style. Hunched over, I carried us along the creekside with the ledge on my right flank helping hide us.
My one goal was to get us into the higher ground, into the tree line about 600 meters from us. Once there I could make some decisions, but I had to get the fuck out of this low, exposed terrain.
There were insane risks in what I was attempting for a variety of reasons. First, I was now making it up as I went. No plan other than my next destination. Second, I was fast and therefore loud. Speed was critical. I didn't have time to worry about breaking twigs or kicking stones. Third, this way took me within 50 meters of a no-shit house. Not a small one; quite likely several families lived there, communally farming these lowlands.
Min-Ji was light, maybe 90 pounds, but carrying her while I was bent over to keep out of sight was killing me. It made her start to feel like 200 pounds in no time.
One step. One foot in front of the next. Keep going, I told myself.
I sucked at the air like a vacuum. In minutes, I wasn't cold; I was hot and sweating, not being able to tell if it was creek water or perspiration falling off my face like raindrops.
No stopping. Keep going. I can do this. Next step. Next step.
At the moment I knew I was going to collapse, I looked to my right and, to my relief, saw that the four-foot ledge was now closer to six feet. I knelt and stood up almost straight. Min-Ji's 90 pounds didn't feel like 200 anymore; they felt more like 150.
300 meters to that tree line.
I continued, almost jogging. My back no longer killing me, I began to consider my situation.
They would know about her absence at 0700. Call it fifteen minutes of a local search—the boss would not wish to tell any higher-ups she was missing until he had done some searching of his own. Fifteen more minutes for getting the word out and for letting the decision-makers plan a response. A half-hour later, the search would be in full swing.
But, daylight was coming at 0618.
No time to stop and look, I guessed the time to be around 0515—an hour till sunrise.
Checking a 360 circle and finding it clear, I ran hard the rest of the way, passing the house without a second thought.
My legs grew tired as I entered the trees and began running uphill. I saw a little cut in the ground and stopped, setting Min-Ji down.
"You okay?" I asked.
She's a trooper, I thought.
I looked at her ankle. Through the sock, I could see the place where her skin bulged out from the wrap. It was still swelling. Had to be painful.
My watch read 0518. I flipped down my NVGs, scanned 360 degrees, and then pulled out my map. I focused solely on using the time I had to find a safe place to hole up before daylight, but where?
Somewhere foot, vehicular, and air patrols will not find us.
"Ski-pa go," she whispered.
I looked at her.
"Ski-pa go. Min-Ji...," she paused, thinking. Then she touched the ground beside her, saying, "Heel. Min-Ji heel." Her eyes showed fear, but she pursed her lips and nodded as if to emphasize her decision.
I couldn't help but smile at her bravery. "No," I responded. "Skipper stays with Min-Ji." I interlocked my fingers, adding, "Skipper and Min-Ji."
She smiled briefly, wrapping her arms around her body and shivering.
Resuming my map analysis, I quickly muttered, "Shit." To my south lay the dense forest, but also more DPRK outposts. To my east, there was a decent hill, but beyond that, more low ground. North and west were simply not options.
The hill to my east has several rough trails darting here and there, but dense foliage and plenty of space between. It was 800 meters away.
Still dark, we needed to make one more jaunt before daylight.
I took a long pull from my canteen and said, "Min-Ji."
She looked at me, pale and cold. I helped her onto my back and began moving east.
The trip took about half an hour, most of it uphill, and my legs felt like molten lead when I set Min-Ji down and began to scout the area around us.
We were well away from the trails. It was a site with potential. I found one more thing I needed—a vertical drop. Didn't have to be sheer, just a fairly steep declivity of at least four or five feet. I saw one just like I wanted about 15 meters west of where I had set down Min-Ji.
She was shivering uncontrollably when I returned and found her.
I surprised her when I laid on top of her and began aggressively rubbing her shoulders and legs. I talked to her, knowing she wouldn't know what the fuck I was saying.
"You're going to be all right, Min-Ji. Just need to carry you one more time, and then I'm going to build us a shelter. We're going to make it. I'll get you warm again. One more move."
After two minutes, I sat up and carried her in my arms to the drop.
It was 0606. Twelve minutes to sunrise.
Scanning the sloping face of dirt and grass, I found my spot, pulled out my knife, and went to work. Three feet wide and two feet high, I began digging out a tunnel in the face of the drop.
A foot or so deep, I took a break and rubbed all over Min-Ji for about five minutes. Then, I resumed the dig, and I built up a routine that way—dig for ten minutes, warm her up for five.
It took just over an hour to clear out our tunnel. Five more minutes to camouflage the entrance.
Meanwhile, the sun came up. I heard distant vehicles on the roads. Nearer, I heard military vehicles start-up.
I wasn't entirely sure how to approach what I knew had to be done next. I began taking off all of my wet clothes—all of them. She stared at the ground in front of her, visibly shaking the entire time. I laid out my wet clothes as a kind of carpet for half of the tunnel and turned to her.
"Min-Ji," I said.
She glanced at me, and then her eyes bent down to my cock.
I pointed at her and mimicked taking off clothes. Then, I pointed at my tunnel.
Her teeth chattered. She didn't move. She just said my name.
I undressed her, laying her pants and shirt on her side of the tunnel.
We were completely naked.
Yes, I looked. Yes, I noticed her body. Hard not to, even in peril. But, I didn't have time to linger upon it. I concluded that whoever she decided to love was going to be a lucky, lucky man.
I lifted her up and fed her body into the tunnel, and then I climbed in beside her, remembering to pull the camouflage down over the entrance.
It was 0743.
The North Koreans knew their Colonel Kwan was missing. The search was about to begin.
I pulled her shivering body next to mine, and then I draped over us a solar blanket that was silver on the inside, camouflage green on the outside. For the next hour, I steadfastly rubbed her, always pressing my warm flesh against hers, blowing my hot breath into her wet hair, and trying to get her body temperature back to normal.
When she stopped shivering, I handed her an unwrapped energy bar and her canteen. She drank all of the water and washed it down with the bar. I ate and rehydrated, as well. After finishing, our limbs grew cold, and we pressed ourselves together once again.
She slept. I listened.
The clothes underneath us began to dry out from our body heat.
I needed to plan a night move out of this place.
The desperation of our condition was clear. The absence of Kwan so near the border could only mean one thing: defection. The obvious solution would be to run high-speed vehicular patrols over every inch of road, to keep the CC fence line under constant troop surveillance, and to flood the area with foot patrols.
But what did they know about her escape? Perhaps nothing, but maybe she had a confidante or a helper on the inside. I had to assume the worst. They wouldn't know my planned—now scrapped—escape route, but through interrogation, they may uncover the original meeting place between Min-Ji and me—the three-way intersection.
From there, I thought..., but I stopped at a haunting new realization: dogs.
Fuck me. Scent dogs. How could I have forgotten?
They would use dogs to track us. Undoubtedly they had some leftover items of Min-Ji's clothing. The dogs would sniff and lead the way. Then, they would find the clothing we had buried south of the intersection.
I doubted those dogs would have my scent. My gear was specially designed to reduce scent plumes. The neoprene clothing I'd brought for her was, too, but her shoes would be the giveaway. They'd definitely have her scent.
We had traveled just over six kilometers from the intersection.
That gave me about three hours from the time they begin trailing us at the intersection.
It was 0922. They were likely on my trail already.
I figured I had until noon. I cursed myself silently for not remembering their dogs.
I glanced at Min-Ji. She remained fast asleep.
I could kill her right now, I knew. She'd barely even have time to open her eyes. Fuck, it would be so easy.
Who the fuck was I kidding? I couldn't bring myself to do that. There's got to be another way, I decided.
Well-handled trailing dogs were nearly impossible to defeat. One needed to either wear them down, distract them, or make one's scent vanish.
I couldn't wear them down if I had to carry Min-Ji, and I had nothing to distract them.
I knew what I had to do, but the risk was horrendous.
I looked at Min-Ji. She can rest, I decided. I've got to get started. It no longer mattered that it was daytime.
I took my gear and slid out of the tunnel.
Min-Ji woke. I signaled to her that I would be back, and I pointed at the three on the watch to signal how long I would be gone.
She looked afraid.
I touched her cheek. I don't know why.
Donning my gear and equipment, I covered the tunnel opening. I found two strong hunks of bark and lashed them to the soles of my boots with dummy cord. Then, I backtracked our route to the tunnel, keeping about 25 meters away from where I actually carried her.
It was slow going; stealth daytime movement is a laborious process, a combination of stalking and crawling.
800 meters took me every bit of an hour and then some. It was 1053 when I reached my goal. Watching across the valley, I saw nothing. So, I spent the next few minutes gathering large, suitable stones.