Written by David Summers
The teacher was tired.
After a long and crappy day at work, he was finally going home to his crappy little one-room apartment. He would microwave something, grab a beer, and maybe watch a movie or something before finally crashing. Only to wake up early the next day and go back to his crappy job and start the whole process again. This was not what he wanted out of life. He had dreams and the desire to escape somehow, but right now, he was focused on just getting home.
He entered the metro station, waved his metro pass over the turnstile, and started taking the stairs to the subway platform. There were not many people. It was a Thursday and already late at night. That was good. It meant that he could just zone out and mostly ignore the locals.
Seriously, why? This country was grinding him down. The language was impossible to learn. The food was either boiled to death or painfully spicy or both. He suspected his boss of underpaying him with his monthly paycheck on some pretense about “withholding 5 percent for tax purposes” or some such flimsy excuse. He had no friends, his job was a total dead end, and his life sucked in general.
Three years. Three years like this, and he felt more and more miserable with every day.
Finally, he arrived at his platform and waited for the last train to arrive. They had those barrier glass doors and advertising panels separating the platform itself from the rails below. One too many cases of suicide. Some poor soul would be having a bad day, and then they would throw themselves onto the tracks of the oncoming subway train. So, a while back, the Seoul Metro authorities had installed the barrier doors. Trains arrive and come to a stop, and then the train doors and the barrier doors open together and people can embark or disembark.
He stood at one of the barrier doors and blankly stared at the tracks just below him.
It would be the final train of the evening before they shut the station down. He was tired. This country was no longer of interest to him. Oh, he had planned to save some money and learn the local lingo, but there were always little expenses and his take-home pay was not much to begin with. Yes, he had taken a stab at learning Korean but… nobody cared. Locals just wanted to speak English with him, even the cashiers at McDonalds. After only a few months, he had given up on the whole idea of trying not to be just an “ugly American.” It just was not worth the effort; especially after a hard day. Who wants to study after work when your brain is fuzzy and your energy level is low?
He had been here too long. He had become cynical and embittered and petty-minded. The teacher wanted out. To just leave Korea. Go home. Yet that was not really an option. Not really. He still had way too much student debt back home to take care of, and at least here, teaching jobs were relatively easy and reliable to get.
He needed to get out though. Quit his job and just go. This was not him. His whole attitude toward life had changed since his time here, and he was not comfortable with the change. He complained more than he should, and he drank more than he should, and he…
It slithered past his field of vision…
Swiftly, silently, along the tracks…
Into the darkness of the tunnel, and it was gone from sight…
“GOD!” he screamed.
He stumbled back in horror from the edge of the platform. That thing. That nightmare thing. He turned to the closest person next to him for support.
“Did you see it? Goddamnit. You saw it?”
The ajumma looked up from her cell phone blankly.
“Are you kidding me? Really?? OH COME ON! WAKE UP!!! Mot-bwasseo? Bwasseo-yo? Did you see it?”
The ajumma dropped her gaze resolutely back to her cell phone and awkwardly backed away from him.
They must have seen it. They must have. It was fast, sure, but somebody must have seen it. Oh, dear god. That thing. It was… it was…
“You saw it? Anybody?” he said with his voice rising in panic. He gestured wildly for attention. Somebody. Please, somebody. Somebody else must have seen it.
“Hey. I’m talking here.” He yelled at the other people scattered along the platform. “Who saw it? Hey. HEY!”
There was one couple fairly close by who looked on at him in curiosity. He rushed to them to explain, and they immediately shied away from him. Nobody wanted to get involved with the crazy foreign guy late at night.
There were a couple of teens a little distance away, but as he shouted at them and made a move towards them, they backed off too. There was nobody. He was alone in the rapidly evaporating crowd.
His panic mutated into frustration and anger. Why were they not listening?
“You stupid idiots!” he ranted. “You stupid, stupid selfish, bastards. How can you all not have seen it? That’s insane. Right there! Right goddamn there just beyond the glass barrier doors.”
He ran his fingers through his hair in despair. “How can you NOT have seen it? That thing was… it… oh hell, it was big.”
It was at this point that two station security guards showed up. As if by magic, they appeared right behind him.
“Hi?” said the first station guard.
“Oh, finally. Yes. Yes. Yes,” babbled the teacher in relief. “There’s something on the train tracks.”
“Slow please,” said the guard, smiling gently.
“Yes, slowly. Of course. Um…” The teacher took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Um, this is an emergency. Emergency, understand? OK? There’s something… something… on… the… tracks. Up there. In the tunnel. Up there!”
The teacher waved his hands violently in the direction of the tunnel for emphasis.
“Tunnel?” said the guard.
“Yes, yes, tunnel. The tunnel. You have got to stop the last train. Um… danger? Um… jo-shim-hae-yo? I think? Crap!”
Both guards stood silently looking at him.
“Um, no. That’s not it. I… Hangook-oh… Hangook-ok. No, that’s not right. Just please. Please. You’ve got to get the people out of here. Right now.”
The guards remained silent and continued to watch him curiously. A couple of people started sliding closer to the center of the action, cell phone cameras in hand.
This was not working. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand him. Dammit. It was then that he saw the emergency alarm mounted on the wall behind the guards.
The fire alarm! That would do it. People had to be warned. There was no other way. He made his move.
The guards were watching him very carefully, however. They anticipated him trying to do something reckless and instantly, with well-practiced moves, restrained him.
It was hopeless. He didn’t even come close to reaching the alarm. One minute, he was making a desperate attempt to push past them, and the next, he was down hard on the platform concrete with the wind knocked out of him and his arms pinned behind his back.
Heaving for breath and in pain, the teacher was pulled to his feet by the security guards.
“Alcohol? You go bar, yes? Bar today? Soju, yes?” said one of the guards.
“No. You don’t… Oh god, please. I’m not drunk. Drink no. No drink. LISTEN TO ME,” the teacher pleaded.
But the guards were in no mood to listen. It was almost the end of the shift, and after the last train picked up the last of the passengers, they were going home. Drunks were common at this time of night. The only difference was that this happened to be a foreign drunk. Oh well. They had a job to do.
With his arms firmly held behind his back, the two guards got ready to frog-march the teacher away from the platform and up to ground level and then into the station office/holding cell.
“NO,” wailed the teacher. “You don’t understand. Oh god. Please somebody help.”
Yet just as they were ready to leave the platform, the station duty officer arrived. He was only a junior officer, but the official duty officer of station security nonetheless. This was his station and his watch, and he wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
The two ajeossi guards saluted smartly and explained in rapid-fire Korean the situation. The officer said something in return and, instantly, the teacher was free, though the guards stayed very close by him on either side.
“May I help you?” said the junior officer.
“I… I… wait. Do you speak English?” said the teacher.
“I’m sorry. Only little. Is there a problem here?”
The teacher hesitated. He had to make the officer understand. “There is an emergency. I tried to explain before. But, oh hell, you’ve got to listen to me.”
“Just over there. I saw it. On the tracks. You’ve got to get everybody out. I was waiting for the train. Oh god! The train. Those people. It will be here any minute. You’ve got to stop the train. You’ve got to.”
“I’m sorry. What did you see?”
Again the teacher hesitated. What should he say? How could he possibly describe what he saw? That brief glimpse of… that thing… that horrifying… what words could possibly explain it?
“There’s this thing. In the dark. It went into the tunnel up there. It’s on the tracks. Never seen anything like it before. Came out of nowhere.”
“Yes. Some animal maybe. No. No, that’s not right. I mean… it was… I can’t… some kind of a monster. Big and fast. I only got a look just for a split second. These men were going to arrest me for being drunk. I’m not drunk. I saw it.”
“Please sir, you need to go home. Go home now. No trouble here, please.”
“NO. GODDAMNIT! YOU’RE NOT LISTENING. YOU CAN’T. YOU’VE GOT TO LISTEN TO ME. PEOPLE ARE IN DANGER HERE! DON’T YOU GET IT? DANGER! IT’S REAL. IT’S RIGHT UP THERE IN THE DARK. OH GOD!”
The guards grabbed him by his shoulders and arms. It was over. It was late, and they all just wanted to go home. What could he do? He had blown his chance to explain. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get him.
In one last attempt, borne of desperation and fear, he strained half-free of the vise-like grip of the guards and leaned in towards the officer. And from deep within his soul, a word came from some long-forgotten Korean class.
His eyes made contact with the junior officer. “Jebal,” he begged.
The officer looked back at him in shock and surprise. The guards hesitated.
Once more. “Jebal.”
The officer made a slight gesture and the guards released their prisoner. The teacher stood there, gasping for breath, not daring to move in case he broke the spell.
“In the dark?” said the officer.
“Ne. Ne. Ne. Yes. In the dark. Up that tunnel.”
The officer turned to the emergency broadcast intercom and pressed the button.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned, his voice booming across both platforms and all upper floors, “the last train tonight is cancelled due to technical difficulties. We are closing the station ahead of time. For your own safely, please follow the designated exits, and leave in a quick and orderly fashion. Make sure to take your belongings with you. If you require assistance, please contact station staff. On behalf of the Seoul Metropolitan Subway Service, we apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your cooperation.”
A barely audible groan of frustration rose up from nearby passengers as they heard the announcement. This was going to be very inconvenient for them all.
The officer turned back to the teacher. “No train now. Everyone will leave the station. We will do a safety check.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you. Thank you very much, sir,” sobbed the teacher with relief.
“Yes. Everybody has to go. Get everybody out as fast as possible.
The officer approached his men and started giving instructions. The teacher felt almost giddy with happiness. Against all odds, he had managed to get through to them. The station was to be cleared and not a moment too soon.
With a smile on his face, the teacher walked off to the exit stairs nearby, eagerly gesturing to disappointed passengers to hurry on up the stairs and leave. It was over. They’d shut it all down and called in a SWAT team or the Army or something. Everyone was going to be safe.
In dribs and drabs, the people left. Soon the platform was almost deserted. The teacher turned back to the platform to check on the security crew, but to his surprise, he found they were gone. Puzzled, he returned to the spot where he’d left them.
One of the barrier doors was manually ratcheted open, gaining access to the tracks below. He peered through another closed glass barrier door further up.
There, beyond the sealed glass doors was the junior officer and his two men.
Down on the tracks, torches on and pointed dead ahead, the security crew moved slowly and deliberately forward, step by step, closer and closer into the darkness of the tunnel gaping before them.
The track safety check!
The teacher rushed to the nearest barrier door and slammed his hands against the glass.
“NO” he cried, his voice muffled by the thick glass and steel. “NO. GET OUT OF THERE. GET AWAY FROM IT. COME BACK. PLEASE.” He slammed his hands against the glass. Again and again and again. They had to stop. They had to get out from there. Torches and pepper spray were not going to help them.
The officer and his men had a job to do. They were resolved. Whatever it was in there that had disrupted the Seoul Metropolitan Subway Service, well, they were going to find it out. It was their station. The darkness of the tunnel would not deter them from their duty. Never.
The guards with their junior officer were beyond view into the darkness just ahead.
Petrified, the teacher held his breath. Starting from the far end of the platform, the lights blinked out one by one, the darkness bleeding slowly out from the tunnel to envelope the platform beyond.
And then came the screams.
“NO!” he cried in terror.
The teacher blindly turned to run away, but immediately stumbled against the large fire safety cabinet set against the wall. Pushing himself back up, he caught his own reflection in the glass cover of the cabinet. He saw himself, stripped naked by his fear. His life revealed in a flash in all of its petty smallness. A creature that was powerless and pitiful… and yes, cynical and embittered. A wave of self-loathing and contempt surged from within.
“No,” he spat out.
That image in the glass revolted him. Acting on pure instinct, he smashed the glass and the reflection it held. He reached in past the broken glass of the cabinet door and grabbed an emergency torch in one fist and a metal fire extinguisher in the other. He raced to the open barrier door and jumped down onto the tracks.
“Hold on,” he gasped. ”I’m coming.”
And then, he dashed forward and was swallowed up by the darkness.