[Media prompt] North Korean soldier swims across river to defect.
The Point of no Return
The man tried to swallow, like he had done a hundred times since leaving the barracks, but his mouth was too dry. There was still time to turn back, and then tomorrow morning he could wake up in his bunk with no one the wiser about his plan to defect. He need only to retrace his steps across the rocks and through the stunted trees. In a matter of minutes he would reach the narrow path running along the top of a bank between rice fields, and from there it took fifteen minutes to reach the camp perimeter. He looked at his watch. In thirty minutes the duty officer would conduct a bed count. He had five minutes before reaching the point of no return, and by then he had better be either in the water making for the southern bank and freedom 1,122 yards away or running back to camp.
The final fifty feet to the fence, a towering barricade of razor wire and guard towers, was the most dangerous. He had chosen one of only two places along the bank that was not visible from two contiguous towers. But it brought him perilously close to the one from which a lookout like Lee, posted tonight as a last minute replacement for the injured Park. He had been counting on Park, a man he assessed as most likely to fall prey to distractions and provide him the ten seconds required to cut through the wire unobserved. Diversions of any kind played no role in Lee’s life. The man squatted for a moment behind the last vestige of cover before the fence. He closed his eyes, thinking of his mother who died giving birth to him, his father killed in a factory accident when he was ten. A man alone in the world. If not he, then who could risk such a swim?
He watched the ball of light roll along the fence line, its heavy steel posts and struts giving an air of impregnability. As it retreated, he started to crawl on his stomach towards the soft gurgle of water, the scent of it in his nose now. Back at the barracks, the night guards would be searching the grounds for him, a preliminary step prior to radiating in small groups outward beyond the camp fence. How long would it take them to start scouring the river’s edge? He froze as the light swept back along the wire, holding his breath when it stopped, his heart roaring in his ears.
And then he was at the fence. His hands shook, but despite it he counted to three and rose up slightly from the ground, exposing himself even in the cloud covered darkness. He snipped the wire in five places, each cut loud and sharp in his ears, but he did not stop, did not pause to learn if Lee’s hearing was as acute as he sometimes boasted. Dropping the wire cutters, the man crawled through his portal to freedom. His pants snagged, but he breathed deeply and unhooked himself slowly, crawling all the way through, resisting the urge to look back.
The ground was damp. He slid down a small embankment, the mud oozing between his fingers, feeling the water suddenly up to his wrists. Something sharp stabbed at his stomach. He felt around in the muck to remove the stick, puzzled when his hand met no obstruction. He slid further into the water, his face now submerged, until he was far enough from the bank to kick off his boots and trousers. A hornet flew past him at an impossible speed, slapping into the water just feet from his head. The pain in his stomach from where the stick speared him was burning now, and two more hornets buzzed overhead, splashing into the water on impact. In panic, he felt under his rib cage, and finding a hole it dawned on him that he Lee had shot him.
The current was stronger than he had calculated, or perhaps he was too weak now to counter it. There was no way to tell how much he had bled. An oval of light illuminated the water around him, and a continuous stream of bullets sent up a spray that stung his eyes. He dived as deeply as he could, hearing his mother calling as he felt the cold water envelop him.