~2000 words, approx 12 min reading time
I saw Esther Park dancing with the Horned Boy last night.
It was a quarter past eleven. Moonlight and fog ruled the Bay. All the good citizens were already tucked away, safe and sound in peeling Victorians and geometric apartment complexes built over the bones of slumbering gods. Esther Park should have been with them, this picture-perfect saint-in-the-making, the kind my Umma sighs at during church, starstruck, before turning around to ask when I’ll become a nice girl like that and settle down. (In Umma’s world, ‘nice’ is incidental—‘nice’ means a girl who cooks and cleans and whom men can stick their family name to like a Post-It note marking their leftovers in the fridge. ‘Nice’ means dutifully putting your kids in Hangul Hakgyo and SAT prep academies before they’re even out of elementary school. ‘Nice’ doesn’t mean nice at all.)
Esther was famed for her shoulder-length virgin black hair, usually kept in soft waves framing a heart-shaped face. Back in high school, I used to wonder what it would be like to touch that hair, perhaps even tug it, before quickly shelving such perilous trains of thought. The fog rolling off the gray water bit Esther more deeply than the rest of us, for she wore a cardigan year-round. Her closet was full of them. One in every shade of spring, summer, and fall, but never winter. She wasn’t a winter at all, our Esther.
Last night the cardigan was nowhere to be seen, lost or forgotten in the syrupy haze of Hennessy and tequila. Esther showed up alone at the club in five-inch stilettos and a blood red dress that clung to her hips as she swayed to the pulse of a low-rent DJ from San Jose. All of our DJs were some version of the same community college dropout, a whole compendium of tribal-tatted doppelgängers ruling over these sticky pockets of nightlife like lesser gods.
Esther must have been pregaming, because she walked straight through those swinging doors and into the thicket of the Horned Boy’s worshippers. The bouncer didn’t even bother to card her, recognizing the knifing look of someone driven by a singular force of will.
Those of us present, the not-so-good ones who possessed the required cocktail of guts and stupidity to wander out of their homes on a sacral Thursday night, exchanged nervous glances from our stretch of safety by the bar. The Horned Boy and his green-eyed worshippers rarely strayed there, for mortal liquor was like cola to them. Underneath their master’s watchful eye, they imbibed Lethean waters and snorted powdered azoth by the bucketful. The luckiest cultists drank straight from the Horned Boy’s veins, scarlet tongues lapping up every last emerald drop. We gave them a wide berth as they writhed at the center of the club, a tight knot of muscle and sin, for we’d all heard the stories of what they did to outsiders. And tonight they welcomed Esther amongst their ranks with open arms and grins stained green around the edges.
We knew it was wrong. We knew we had to do something. But before any of us could muster up the nerve to drag Esther out of the revelers’ circle, He saw her. And by then it was already too late.
The Horned Boy cupped Esther’s soft cheek and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. His great antlers were draped in blackberry thorns and priceless gems that flashed beneath the cheap strobes, momentarily blinding any hapless would-be savior who came too close. Esther Park smiled, dimples flashing, and took his clawed hands in hers, pulling him into the crowd.
Nobody saw or heard from her for another week.
Josh Choi saw Esther Park kissing the Horned Boy last night.
He was stumbling home, inadvisably alone at an even more inadvisably late hour. He left this out of the story for the ajummas’ sake, but he’d been smoking pot with the other youth pastors in the parking lot—I’d dealt to them enough times to know. His designated driver fell through, but the Visitacion Valley Chois don’t live too far from church, so he made the journey on foot.
It was an unsettling night from the start, or so he alleged. The fog lay in thick silver ropes against the ground, and Josh swore they hissed like snakes and nipped at his Jordans. Just when he was beginning to regret his stoned decision-making, he stumbled across an abandoned playground.
Esther was there, and the Horned Boy, too. They shared a single swing, her bare ivory arms wrapped around him in an act of unmistakable tenderness. The rusted chains creaked beneath their weight, but did not break.
The sight of those antlers beneath the moonlight sobered Josh up at once, and he remembered the rest clearly enough for the details to be coherent: how they would pause kissing to touch foreheads and laugh, how Esther’s cheeks flushed pink when the Horned Boy ghosted his cherry-red lips against the hollow of her throat. How right there, at each of her temples, was the budding beginning of a horn.
They were too entangled and drunk off one another to notice Josh’s presence at all. Lucky boy, the church ajummas murmured around the potluck table, long after the story was done. He was a good boy, and God had shielded him from their wickedness.
I loaded up a paper plate with stale Costco muffins as I listened. It was easier to be good in the eyes of the world, I suppose, when all you were meant to be was a boy who smoked pot in church parking lots.
Hana Suk saw Esther Park become a god last night.
Those of us lucky enough to sit near Hana during Sunday’s service clung to her every word as she told the story in bits and pieces that filled the gaps of Pastor Lee’s sermon, which none of us were paying attention to anyway. A few messengers disseminated the details throughout the rest of the church, each part of the story relayed as urgently as a wartime transmission. It was exciting to pretend that the pews were trenches and all of us were somehow integral in Esther’s story, even if it wasn’t true and Hana Suk had suffered a psychotic break during her third year of university, so she was hardly a reliable witness. How tragic for her parents, the ajummas had said then, shaking their heads.
Esther Park’s parents were nowhere to be seen. They hadn’t shown their faces at church since the Horned Boy stole their daughter and turned her inside out. Mrs. Choi of the Outer Richmond Chois speculated with no small amount of glee that they might even die from the shame of it all.
I never understood the concept. How could something as toothless and clawless as shame kill a person? I clenched my fist around the memory of Esther’s virgin hair and even hazier, booze-soaked visions of other girls’ sweaty skin glazed in strobing lights. If nobody ever knew, could a lie transmute into the truth?
Anyway, Hana’s story went like this:
She was taking the BART home from Montgomery Street because her job at a dim sum joint in Chinatown kept her later than usual. She hated the job, hated dealing with the tourists who assumed she only spoke Mandarin and never tipped enough, but it wasn’t like she had a plethora of options since dropping out of Stanford. She hated it even more when she was forced to commute home late at night, because anyone could trip and fall into the liminal spaces that popped up in empty stations and train cars with alarming regularity these days. And who knew what happened after? Who knew what waited in each yawning abyss that opened up when you were only half paying attention?
Hana was alone in the last car when the lights flickered out. When they came back on, she wasn’t anymore.
The Horned Boy stood at the center of his worshippers, jade blood flowing from him like wine. They were carrying him, supporting his weight with trembling, malnourished arms. At his feet knelt Esther, horns sprouting from her skull, her hands and mouth stained in the beast’s blood. She laid a breathy kiss against his wrist before licking the emerald trails clean. Around them, the green-eyed worshippers began to chant in their twisted, ancient tongue—the Horned Boy’s language, which all spoke and will speak at the beginning and end of this world.
As their voices rose into a frenzy, Esther’s skin glowed, like a pearl beneath the moonlight. Her horns furled outward, pink magnolia buds sprouting on the tines. Her breathing became ragged, then tore into an animal howl, the likes of which Hana had never heard before.
Hana shrank back into her seat and prayed. Perhaps God was listening, because the lights flickered out once more, and then the grisly sight of the god-making was gone. Wiped clean, as if it had never been there at all.
Hana’s eyes shone as she relayed the story to us, her hands moving with an animated fervor I hadn’t seen from her since high school. The ajummas who used to tsk at the sight of her watched, rapt, and in that singular moment Hana Suk was a god of her own making.
Pastor Lee ended the service with a moment of silence for Esther Park and her family. Only then did the gossip finally quiet.
I worshiped at the altar of Esther Park last night.
I ran into her at the club where she was first claimed. Antlers jutted from her temples like the proud branches of spring. Delicate magnolias bloomed along their length.
Halmeoni used to swear that all dokkaebi are ugly as anything, blue-skinned, twisted creatures with horns and fangs, but not Esther. Her skin was smooth and shell-pink and her hair was still that same virgin black. She smiled at me from the other side of the club, piquant in an ice blue dress and unnervingly steady on her stilettos.
Some might say that I should have known better. The problem was, I did know, but I could not have shed myself of the sudden, fierce desire which bubbled up within me any more than I could have flayed off my own skin. I bought us a round of drinks, then a second, then a third, until the tip money I picked up from waiting tables ran dry and my wallet lay flaccid and empty. Esther only laughed and trailed two fingers along the edge of my jaw. Her other hand stirred the olive in her martini without touching it.
Power thrummed from her in waves. It was intoxicating. Spellbinding. Perhaps this was the same magnetic force that drew her to the Horned Boy on that foggy night three weeks ago. It caressed me, this untapped longing not for anything as primitive as carnal pleasure, but something unspeakably more.
“Do you remember that time in high school?” I asked, my words slurring a little. “We had the senior prank all planned out—we were going to fill the principal’s office with expired kimchi—but you ratted us out.”
“Different girl,” she answered easily. Once she would have blushed and stammered, and I frowned a little, dizzy and confused as to why this Esther did not match the one who resided in my head. “Different time. Do you want to come home with me?”
I should have known better—
Esther Park led me home with one clawed hand. Her new place was a studio apartment by a park—that was all the detail my memory would grant me, come morning. What I remembered best was the smell of her, which was layered, complex, a new experience every inch. Her skin smelled of honey and vanilla, her hair of fog and pine, her breath of blood and frost. I couldn’t even tell you if we actually had sex that night, but I remembered laying there, staring at the ceiling veined with living vines.
The next morning, she was gone. I woke up at noon in my own bed to the sing-song chime of my mother’s rice cooker, the worst hangover I’d ever experienced battering the contents of my skull into porridge. I picked the pieces of myself up out of the bed and stumbled to the bathroom to take the coldest shower my pipes would allow.
When I emerged, still shivering, I glanced in the mirror.
On each of my temples budded the beginnings of a horn.
Lynn D. Jung writes speculative fiction in all shades of strange. Since obtaining her B.S. in Zoology, she has bounced from one exciting location to the next in search of more adventures to put on the page. Aside from traveling and writing, her hobbies include crochet, climbing, hiking, and making silly YouTube videos.