[Originally released here]
Have you ever got the strange, mesmerising feeling when you stare into the ridiculously long escalator in a subway station? That the more you look into it, the more you get absorbed into the space, all the while your gaze cannot reach its other end?
I used to take the subway to and from my work every day. But not anymore. And here’s why.
About three months ago I took the subway to work. It was still in the summer, which was the most disgusting period of time for the subway system because people with all kinds of repelling smell would come underground and pollute the train air. Every day I hated my life when I hopped on the subway train and was instantly assaulted by the special subway mix of smells. But it was the fastest way to get to work. There was no way I would risk getting stuck in the rush hour traffic above the ground for an hour just to save my nose from a fifteen-minute torture.
Fortunately, I had almost perfected the technique of getting myself lost in the virtual world of my phone. The technology had my deepest appreciation because I could finally find a way to ignore the sweaty armpit right next to my face. Or at least to some degree.
That day was just like any other day.
I got off the train and stepped onto the escalator like everyone else. No one was speaking. Everyone was looking equally tired and was either staring at the phone or was staring blankly into the front, waiting for the escalator to reach the top. I had put away my phone, figuring that I should give my eyes some rest.
All of us were moving slowly upwards by the escalator, standing still in each one’s position like cargo waiting to be delivered to the next spot. We were arriving at the middle section of the extra long escalator when you could not really make out the ending points of the escalator on either side. It was nothing special because I experienced this every day, but somehow I silently remarked to myself that this actually deserved a small ‘wow’ from us people.
So I marvelled at the engineering achievement for a while. And for another while. And for still another while. Until it came to my mind that the escalator seemed to be running longer than usual. The people around me were still either absorbed in their phones or looking at their surroundings in an absent-minded manner. This comforted me a little, but I still could not shake the uneasiness. From my countless times of experience, the escalator trip should’ve long ended. Why were we still in the middle section of the stairs?
Soon even the calm quietness around was getting me. I started to squeeze my way upward. People grunted and frowned when I waged pass, but were like meek and unhappy sheep in suits who only gave you approving faces when shoved aside. I climbed for a while but still could not see the end of the stairs.
At this point, I was really starting to panic. I asked a young man who looked like a college student: ‘Hey, do you know when this escalator will end?’
He just looked at me with plain confusion.
I wasn’t sure if it was because he was wearing earphones and could not hear what I was saying, or because my question was stupid. Of course, under normal circumstances, the question would sound incredulous. But didn’t anyone notice that there was clearly something wrong going on here?
I discarded the dumb student aside and continue my way upwards. But there was no use. No matter how fast I climbed–even running–I could not reach the end. I could not even see the end. I tried to get the other people into figuring this thing out, but they all looked at me with distant concern. Concern about my manic actions might bring them trouble, probably.
Eventually, I got tired and stopped for a moment, leaning on the escalator rail to catch my breath. I was half-way through my recovery when a rustle came from below.
At first, it was just a low rumble. But within a minute the sound came nearer and nearer, and the air hummed with vibration. I looked down at where I came, and there, at the farthest point my eyes could reach, a pile of something was closing in fast. My first instinct was to run, but the escalator was blocked by people all the way up and there was no way I could outrun that strange burst. No one near me was running, but at a certain point, people were automatically standing aside, leaving a passageway on the right side of the escalator while they all crammed and formed a line on the left.
At that point, there really wasn’t much time for me to think, so I sided with all the people and pressed my body as tight against the rail as possible, hoping that whatever was coming from down below would just pass.
The rumble came closer, and the whole escalator was trembling from the force. If someone screamed that the escalator was breaking in half, I would have believed that in a second.
The sound and vibration continued to strengthen until my ears almost exploded.
A giant snake slithered up the escalator.
Or so I thought.
People piled upon people. Flesh infused with flesh. Everyone was merged against another, becoming an organic whole that crashed through the escalator. Torsos and limbs stuck out of the fleshy lump, wearing suits and carrying bags loading with office life essentials. A thousand hands grabbed and touched the escalator, pulling and propping the fleshy abomination upward and upward.
Do you know how fear can take control of your whole body? I was too scared to look, but my body would not move an inch, and my head would not turn the other way. I did not want to cry, and yet tears streamed down my cheeks.
I watched involuntarily as this thing rushed by, feeling the numerous palms and fingertips brushing and slapping against me.
After what felt like an eternity, the deafening voice stopped, and the vibration was reduced back to the normal movement of the escalator. I soon reached the end of the escalator and found myself unable to walk because of all the shock I just went through. The station staff came to my help but had no idea what I was talking about. No one saw any giant human snake and the escalator had been working with zero hiccup that morning. People were polite and supportive, but it was clear that they suspected me to be not quite right in the head.
Even up until now, I still cannot make sense of what happened that day. I’ve shared this story with just a few close friends, and one of them said that I must have seen the true form of the nation’s workforce.
But there’s one thing I’m certain of: I’m not taking the subway anymore.