The Ghost Subway

Hyunji Yang
Summer’s hot golden sun burned low in a cloudless sky, assaulting the three of us with a positively oppressive heat. I fanned at my flushed face, silently begging the air around me for a breeze, though I was already sure it would remain obstinately stagnant. Tugging gently at my collar with my other hand, I could feel my skin starting to turn pink even beneath the white cotton of my blouse. A mixture of sweat and humidity glued stray strands of hair firmly against my cheeks, and I felt that my feet may be permanently welded to the brand-new sandals they were currently dragging across the concrete below me.
My friends and I were returning from lunch on the upper west side of Seoul, and I, for one, was sorely regretting our decision to take the subway back to Gangnam. This neighborhood was not among our usual haunts, but, intrigued by the opening of a stylish new cafe, we had ventured out for an afternoon of aesthetically pleasing juices, pastries, and sandwiches. While the cafe had not disappointed, the surrounding area was unpleasantly dreary, and the humid air around us now felt unsettlingly like a pot of stew slowly climbing toward its boiling point.
Idle conversation had quickly died out as we made our way toward the station, discomfort overpowering any potential urge to socialize. A bead of sweat dripped from the tip of my nose onto my phone screen as I confirmed in my maps app that the entrance to Line 1would finally appear once we rounded the next corner.
“Thank god,” my friend Dabin exclaimed, as we approached the bleak staircase that would lead us underground. I hummed quietly in agreement.
“That was quite an adventure, huh?” remarked Jihye, as we made our way through the threshold and down the stairs. I turned to her and smiled in response, noting that her soft melodic voice contrasted oddly with her uncharacteristically disheveled appearance. She was right, though; the previous fifteen minutes had felt perilous. Unfortunately, when we reached the subway platform, we found that our little adventure was in fact far from over.
The pristine air-conditioned haven that would normally await one at the bottom of subway stairs was nowhere to be found. Instead, we were met with an entirely unfamiliar scene: a swarm of weary business suits, blank stares, and dark circles packed into a dingy hall that seemed to stretch on forever, walls dark and bare, bereft of the usual colorful advertisements one would expect. The innumerable crowd of strangers moved in an unsteady rhythm, sending waves of even more heat and sweat wafting towards us–although looking at the crowd you’d think they’d be as cold as corpses. Indeed, the sweat on the back of my neck seemed to freeze as I observed them.
Agreeing that there was no turning back after making it this far, we carefully waded into the crowd. Dust and small insects spiraled through the air, threatening to stick in our hair and clothes. A cigarette butt rolled under my sandal, and I nearly fell over as my foot slid forward, smearing ash against the ground–thankfully, Dabin grabbed my arm and steadied me before I could tumble to the ground. I squinted impatiently into the dark subway tunnel, desperately willing the train to appear from the void and rescue us from this foul wasteland. The empty cavern seemed to mirror the blank expressions of the solemn strangers around us.
Finally, a tinny melody rang over the station’s speakers signaling the arrival of the train. I recognized the melody, but this rendition had a somber quality that made the familiar bubbly tune sound somehow monotonous. Before I could ponder this any further, the crowd around us suddenly roared to life. As if thrown overboard into a storm, I was swept off my feet and carried off into the train. In the blink of an eye, Dabin and Jihye were nowhere to be found. Crushed between the strange ghosts, I heard the train doors rattle shut and felt the engine below us rumble to life. I closed my eyes and imagined I was safely in my bedroom. Friendly rays of sunlight peak in between soft green curtains. A silent air conditioner embraces me with a gentle breeze, as I bury myself in soft, white sheets. A gold-brimmed ceramic diffuser fills the room with the faint scent of lavender.
Six stops and about ten minutes later, the train car had mostly emptied out. I reunited with Dabin and Jihye, who both looked terrible. Hair all out of place, clothes wrinkled and stained with sweat, faces red and glossy. I glanced down to assess my own condition and was horrified to find an unfamiliar gray smear on my white sleeve. None of us said anything. Two stops later, we had finally reached our transfer station.
Relief washed over me as I stepped onto the clean platform. The bright green sign displaying “Line 2, this way,” was clean and welcoming. I could feel my breath gradually relax as we continued following the green signs toward Line 2–the line we usually used.
I ran my fingers through my hair a few times, smoothing it down as we finally reached the top of an escalator that brought us to the Line 2 platform. Colorful, familiar ads decorated clean whitewalls surrounding a small group of well-dressed people. Among those ads was a large glowing sign for contact lenses. The lenses came in a variety of colors ,and the model in the image was sporting a pair that had subtle flecks of gold in them. I smiled. I’d seen this ad all over Gangnam, and there was an odd comfort in seeing a familiar face after what I’d just been through. The model’s huge, bright eyes seemed to be watching over me. I finally felt safe again.
A bubbly melody sounded clearly from cheerful speakers. We boarded the train, and two stops later I was at my home station. I waved goodbye to Dabin and Jihye and hurriedly navigated to my apartment complex. The doorman greeted me, but I had no energy for pleasantries, impatiently gesturing toward the elevator with a blank expression. The elevator announced the 32nd floor, and I trudged toward my door, feeling how much the exhaustion from the day had taken its toll on me.
Once inside, I wasted no time tossing my clothes directly into the trash can and running a hot shower. I meticulously lathered my hair with coconut shampoo, letting hot water and vanilla soap cast off the darkness I’d experienced today. I rinsed my hair three times just to be sure no trace of dust or cigarette smoke still clung there. Just to be sure that all the ghosts had been washed away. With a deep sigh, I turned off the shower.
After finishing my regular nightly routine, I settled into bed. Swathed in a white down comforter, I waited for peace to find me. Moonlight shone through my curtains, casting a pale green glow over the room. I closed my eyes, knowing I was safe here.
           That was the first night I dreamt of the ghosts. They’ve haunted my dreams ever since; lurking around the shadows at the corners of my eyes, smearing ashes along my unconscious mind. I want to forget them, but I know I never will. No matter how far I climb up my ivory tower, the ghosts will always be there. Silent. Alive. Staring up at me with tired eyes.

Hyunji Yang is a 17-year-old from Seoul, South Korea who currently attends Westminster School, a private boarding school in Simsbury, Connecticut. With great passion and creativity in writing, Hyunji Yang has continuously challenged herself with various writing genres such as fiction, descriptive, and expository. “The Ghost Subway” is based on Hyunji’s shocking experience riding the subway and how it illustrated Korea's social and economic divides —something that Hyunji had never encountered before.

"늦은 출근 길... 한 시간의 지각은 사람을 참 여유롭게 만든다 #Seoul #Subway #Station #Empty #Tardy #Calm" by IchStyle is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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