INTRODUCTION BY MADELEINE THIEN
Although we’ve been corresponding for almost five years, I have never met Te-Ping Chen. Early on, she told me that she was writing fiction, and that these stories were “a little private store of joy outside my day-to-day journalism.” I felt an immediate kinship with her. Back then, she was living in Beijing where she worked for the Wall Street Journal. I had been writing fiction about China after—many years ago—giving up my own journalistic dreams.
In 2017, Te-Ping sent me the stories from Land of Big Numbers. Embarrassingly, it took me ages to read them. My father’s death had gutted me, I was starting a new job in a new city, my brain cells moved in slow motion. At last, I slid the two-inch stack of paper from its envelope, snapped off the elastics holding it together, and began to read.
I was gobsmacked.
Te-Ping Chen, I thought, is clearly some kind of self-taught genius. The stories are agile, dizzying, bursting at the seams—and madly skillful. Each story crystallizes into a marvelous form. But more than that Te-Ping writes about history and politics through its kernel, the complicated human being.
You, lucky reader, can read one of the stories from the collection, “Gubeikou Spirit,” right here.
I won’t give away its brilliance, but allow me some parenthetical thoughts. In 2021, we may feel a shiver of recognition with Pan, Jun and the subway passengers who find themselves sliding uneasily “into this new life.” Down in Gubeikou Station, the speed of the 21st century collides with something equally powerful, and even mountainous—us. But what is that us?
Faced with the unthinkable, we hoard, grow suspicious, act on fear; we also reinvent, build community, and create new conditions for surviving. We toggle between being citizens and mere passengers. How quickly we cease to register our unfree conditions! But also: how movingly we make alternative demands of freedom. As the story observes, “It could not be determined if she had always been so incoherent, or if it was life at Gubeikou that had made her so.”
Complicated, provocative, hilarious, joyful, frustrating, liberating, the China of Land of Big Numbers is the China many of us know, the China we hope others might perceive: a place rife with knowledge about all of us, our social fabric, our politics, our human natures. After so long yearning to leave the underground, Pan voices the questions that assail many who stand before the future they said they wanted: What, in our dreams and stories, in our efforts, were we moving towards? And what, exactly, are we waiting for?
– Madeleine Thien
Author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
How to Survive Underground
by Te-Ping Chen
Pan entered Gubeikou Station at top speed, hurtling through the crowds, hand on her purse. It was late and her father would be getting restless, prone to wandering; she needed to get home, get on the train. At the end of the line a guard lazily waved his security wand over her duffle coat, both sides, slowing her down. “I’m in a hurry,” she said plaintively.
Down the steps, then, quick-stepping on the too-shallow stairs, dodging the march of people headed in the opposite direction, determinedly clutching their bags as they went. “Let me through!” she cried. But it was 5 p.m. and Gubeikou was crowded. A train had just arrived, disgorging more people now headed to the exits; she was beaten back against the wall by the crowds.
By the time she reached the foot of the stairs the train doors had closed; it had left the station.
That was all right, Pan thought. She’d get the next one. She made her way to a bench, sat down. Haste didn’t pay, she reminded herself. Today she’d miscounted the change at the register and ended up 20 yuan short: she’d had to make up the difference. At home as a child, her family had nicknamed her Ranhou Ne? because she was always asking, “And then?” from the time she was young.
“I got some leeks today,” her mother might say.
“I’ll make some soup.
“And then we’ll eat it.”
“And then you’ll go to sleep and stop asking questions, baby.”
The station filled with people. A middle-aged woman with a perm sat down beside her and took out a tube of crimson lipstick and smeared it on her face. Opposite them was a yellow ad featuring a grinning Jack Russell terrier jumping in the air to catch what looked like the world, a globe. It was too large: Pan doubted the dog would be able to catch it; it would just bounce harmlessly off his nose.
Another ten minutes passed. Then, an announcement: “The next train will be delayed. We thank you for your understanding.”
The train was a marvel, just two years old, state-of-the-art. It had doors that swung open like a singing mouth, emitting a merry chime, and closed after twenty seconds with precision. There were twenty-six lines already built, with another ten under way. No other city in the world had built its subway stations so quickly.
Half an hour passed. The crowd swelled and milled around unhappily, everyone bundled in their coats. Pan was glad she had her seat. Every ten minutes or so, the announcer would return: “The next train will be delayed. We thank you for your understanding.”
A pair of teenage boys took off their coats and laid them on the ground and sat atop them. A handful of others followed suit, and then others.
Pan’s legs were starting to fall asleep, and she twitched her chilly toes inside her pink boots. It had been a while since anyone else had entered the station, she noticed; they must be turning people away.
Down the platform, a man in a bright-blue coat was the first to try leaving. Indignant, he led a group of half a dozen commuters back up the stairs, where they banged on the access gates, which consisted of tall, solid plates of hammered metal.
One guard must have taken out a stepladder, because suddenly his whole face and part of his torso appeared, peering out over the barriers.
“We’ll get the train moving soon,” he said kindly. When shouts rang out, he nodded sympathetically. “I know,” he said. “You’re tired. I’m tired, too. You want to go home and eat a nice meal, rest for a while. I do, too. Please be patient. We’ll get there together.”
Then he did a little shimmy of his hips, at which the crowd laughed. After the subway system had opened, the government had hired teams of beautiful young women to dress in tight-sheathed skirts and blouses with red sashes across their chests that read TRAIN GODDESSES SERVE THE PEOPLE. During rush hour, they stood on the platform and twitched their hips as they sang the same song:
Thank you for your cooperation, please line up, do not push
Be a civilized passenger, for your safety and that of those around you
We’ll get there together.
Pan didn’t laugh. Her father was waiting at home, waiting for her to come back and cook dinner. By now he would be pacing anxiously in the living room, where she had left the television on all afternoon in an effort to amuse him, but his favorite program had ended an hour ago and who knew what he might decide to do next: Light the stove? Bang his head repeatedly against a wall?
She took her subway card and waved it repeatedly over the gates, which flashed a red x. “Let us go!” she shouted, but the guard’s head had already disappeared.
That night they slept on coats at careful distances from one another, on islands spread of newspaper, heads pillowed on bags. The lights never went out. A baby made small keening noises through the night, but did not cry. They were too far down to get any signal, but Pan, who seized a patch of ground near the bathroom at the west end of the tunnel, kept an eye on her phone anyway, watching the time: 11:10, 4:30, 6:32. Her stomach clenched anxiously anytime she thought of her father: perhaps one of the neighbors would have stopped to check on him, she thought to herself. It had happened before.
At 8 a.m. two guards reappeared, this time through a side door marked STAFF ONLY that had been locked overnight. The first came wheeling a cart stacked with boxes of ramen and tall thermoses filled with hot water. Each person got a cup, a toothbrush, and a sliver of soap, which came in pouches that bore the stamped white letters HUMANITARIAN SUPPLIES.
“Repairs still under way,” he said shortly.
A man dressed in an untidy, reflective smock, the kind that street cleaners wore, got up, brushing himself off. “You can’t treat us like this!” he shouted. “We have things to do. Let us go.”
The first guard shook his head regretfully. “Passengers must exit at a different station from where they entered,” he said. “It’s in the rule book.”
The second guard taped a sheet of paper to the wall. Owing to a mechanical breakdown, it ran in printed letters, trains at Gubeikou Station will be delayed. We assure passengers they will get to their destinations. Thank you for your cooperation. A red seal was affixed in one corner.
“Let us out with you,” another man said, pointing at the door through which they’d entered; a third guard was wheeling in another cart.
“Can’t do that,” the first guard said. He tapped the STAFF ONLY sign and began to lay out trays of plastic utensils, washcloths, and napkins. Other passengers gathered, peppering the man with questions: How much longer? What was the problem, exactly? Could their fares be refunded?
“We’ll get you to your destination,” is all they would reply. They would take messages to loved ones, they said. They would ensure work units were notified.
One of the teenage boys darted toward the door. In response, the second guard unsheathed an electric baton and whirled it about his person once, striking the young man, who dropped to the ground and began quietly moaning.
“Look what you made me do,” the guard said angrily.
In a matter of minutes the men had erected a small supply station near one end of the platform, complete with soy milk, crackers, instant noodles, coloring books, pencils, and stacks of coarse yellow blankets. “Thank you for your cooperation,” they said to the crowd, before leaving. “We’ll get you moving soon.”
That day, the two teenage boys tried scaling the subway turnstiles, but were warned back by guards who stood just outside, faintly visible through the cracks, wielding electric batons. “Down!” they cried, gesturing at signs that said NO CLIMBING.
Pan and others tried standing by the entrance, shrieking repetitively, “Let us out!” There was something both liberating and terrifying in all the fuss they were causing; it made Pan think of her grandmother, who, in her final years, had similarly appeared to lose all inhibitions, shedding her pants in a supermarket, calling other neighbors “slovenly” to their faces. It also made Pan’s head hurt, and with the guards unmoved, eventually the group’s efforts subsided.
By the second day, the train still hadn’t come, to everyone’s bewilderment. The announcements kept playing: “The next train will be delayed. We thank you for your understanding.”
“Soon,” the passengers kept telling one another. “It must be soon.” Maybe a new part needed ordering. Someone remembered hearing that the trains had been made in Germany. How long did it take to ship something from Germany?
On the third day, the man in the blue coat set off into the tunnels. “We may as well,” said the man, named Jun. He tied plastic bags around his shoes; the tunnels were damp, and at night they could hear the sound of water dripping.
“Be careful!” Pan shouted as Jun set off. She liked the slender-hipped way he would stand for hours at the platform, listening earnestly for sounds of the train, the way he helped pick up the scattered ramen lids and neatly stack them after meals. He wasn’t from the city; his speech was lilted like that of someone from the country’s west.
He returned when they’d nearly given up expecting him, face and hands dirtied. The tunnels extended for miles in all directions, lit by only ghostly lights, he said. He’d gotten lost. The track layout was bewildering, he said. Some tunnels were partly caved in and appeared to have been abandoned halfway, while others led nowhere at all.
The next day he went back in anyway, this time carrying a bag full of their trash, which he used to mark his way. He began disappearing for hours like that, every day. Occasionally the teenage boys would go with him.
“There must be a way out,” he said.
Sensing discontent among their charges, the guards wheeled in a television set, which carried cartoons in the morning, sports games and dramas in the afternoon, and every night, the evening news. There were winter dust storms sweeping the north. There was a new scourge of telephone scams happening; residents were urged to stay on the alert.
Together they slid, uneasily, into this new life. In the mornings, one woman began leading calisthenics sessions to the sound of a tinny transistor radio from one of the guards. The children spent hours chasing one another around the benches on one end of the platform, and did not appear to weary of their game. In the afternoons, adults chatted, watched television, or slept.
At night Pan heard whispered endearments exchanged between a teenage couple who slept a few feet away. Unlike the others, the two seemed utterly content, staying up for hours to eat ramen and watch the television as it flickered in the dark, schoolbags discarded to one side. At times Pan touched the roof of the small cardboard cove she’d erected above her head, offering a semblance of privacy. On its inside, she had stenciled in a number of stars.
She made one for Jun, too, bending and taping the cardboard with care. “You don’t have to draw on it,” he’d said, and she’d nodded, embarrassed.
One morning, a shout went up in the station: someone had seen a flash of color peeking out from the pile of blankets where one construction worker slept and found that he had been hoarding piles of ramen. When they pulled back his bedding, they found dozens of packets had been stuffed inside.
“Selfish!” shouted the middle-aged woman with a perm. “Don’t you think of the rest of us?”
“Get up! Apologize!”
Eventually the group took a vote, and a retired professor among them was chosen to manage the ramen. A sign was drawn up and pasted to the supply station: NO SEEKING PERSONAL BENEFITS: TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED. Later that afternoon (some had begun to eye the professor with suspicion), a second vote was taken and it was decided that they would instead draw up ramen ration tickets, to be handed out every day, and that system lasted for a few days before the guards brought in additional boxes and there was an excess of ramen anyway and everyone abandoned it.
Pan thought of the first time she’d taken a train, thirteen years ago with her mother, before she’d passed away from stomach cancer. Her father had been there, too; it was before his accident, before his confusion had set in, before his illness had turned him into an invalid. She had been ten, and they had been going to see the famous karst landscapes of the south. The train was a hulking green locomotive that carried them for hours, and when they’d arrived, the air was hot and humid and the hills lush with foliage. Later she would understand her mother was already sick at the time, and this was a final trip for them all to help say goodbye.
Time passed. At night, the baby cried. Jun ventured into the tunnels less frequently, and, like the others, started sleeping for long intervals during the day. “When will the train come?” they asked the guards every morning. “Together we’ll get there,” they replied, like manic pharmacists given only one pill to administer. The calisthenics woman stopped leading group exercises in the morning after she came down with a cold; dampness from the tunnel had caused it, she was sure.
And then in the middle of the afternoon, two weeks on, it happened. The air changed abruptly, a wind blew through the station, and a rushing noise grew louder.
“It’s a train!” yelled one of the children, getting to her feet and dashing near the edge.
“Careful!” her mother warned. “Don’t run!”
Others shouted, too. “A train! A train!” On mattresses around the floor, several who’d been taking a post-lunch nap fumbled for their glasses and quickly rose to their feet.
Jun was already at the end of the platform, waiting, peering into the tunnel. Pan hurried to join him. “Do you see it?”
“I see it.”
The light was getting stronger, streaming through the thick air of the tunnel. The crowd lined up around them, watching. The light grew nearer; there was a honking sound. The train entered the station, moving fast. Inside they could see the train car was empty. There was a moment, too late, when everyone realized that it was not going to slow. It did not stop.
After it departed the station, they sat around dazedly, trying to console one another. “Next time,” they said. “It’s a good sign, anyway.”
A short while later, the sound of the Train Goddesses’ song came on the audio system.
Thank you for your cooperation, please line up, do not push
Be a civilized passenger, for your safety and that of those around you
We’ll get there—
Then it was abruptly cut off, as though an order had been quickly countermanded.
Later, lying in bed, it occurred to Pan that the careful trails of debris that Jun had been leaving had probably been obliterated by the train. It didn’t matter, she told herself. So far his periodic searches hadn’t yielded anything, anyway. She suspected he was keeping them up just as a way to be alone: twice she’d seen him shrug off the teenage boys who tried to join him.
Days drew themselves out, days in which Pan, like the others, spent hours prone in bed. After long days on her feet at work, and long nights caring for her father, for the first time in years, she found she could sleep for twelve, thirteen hours straight: such richness, such intoxication. At times it was an effort to pull herself out of bed, to push herself to think of what was required of her now.
“Something’s wrong,” Pan told the group one morning nearly a month after they were stranded, slowly stirring her ramen. “We’re never going to get out. Not unless we do something.”
“It’s a mechanical issue,” said one man who worked in a metallurgical plant and snored loudly through the night. “Have a little patience.”
“Patience?” Jun said. “It’s been weeks.”
“What do you have to do outside that’s so important, anyway?” the woman with the perm said. Her voice sounded coquettish, and Jun’s face flushed. It was true that he didn’t have a wife or children waiting for him, like some of the passengers did. It was true that he would not be missed at the factory, either; they would just move another man up the line.
“Anyway, it’s not so bad in here,” a woman who worked as a schoolteacher said, sensing his discomfort. “They’re taking good care of us.”
Since the first days, the guards had brought in mattresses, folding tables, chairs, and pillows. They’d wheeled in extra television sets and for meals had begun serving simple boxed lunches: steamed buns, sandwiches, fried noodles. There were towels, even a badminton set, lots of paper and markers and pens for the children, a few boxes of books and videos. What else did they need?
“That’s not the point,” Pan said.
“What is the point?” the retired professor said, with what sounded like genuine curiosity, as though she were a student who’d posed an interesting academic question.
Pan stared at him crossly, not knowing what to say.
“I’m getting more rest than I have in years,” said a man to her right, and a few of those assembled laughed, as if he’d been joking.
“So you aren’t upset?” Pan said, appealing to the group.
“Of course we’re upset,” the professor said. “But it doesn’t do any good to be anxious. Just calm down.”
“I am calm!” Pan said. Then she turned away and walked back to her blankets, slowly and deliberately, to show how calm she was, and to camouflage the heat around her eyes.
It took two days to hatch her plan, and then one night after everyone had gone to sleep, she arranged her three other co-conspirators by the staff door. Jun was the one who’d had the good idea to lay additional blankets on the floor and recline on them, as though they’d simply chosen to move their sleeping spots. “There are cameras,” he said. “They could be watching.”
The next morning, the four of them woke early and listened intently for sounds of movement, each holding an extra blanket. When the click of the lock turned and the first guard entered, Jun sprang up and flung a blanket over him. It was harder than they’d expected: one of the teenage boys had to rush to his aid before they managed to pinion the guard’s arms to his side.
By then the second guard had entered, baton aloft, but also disappeared sputtering into a blanket. Farther down the platform, heads were beginning to turn.
“Hurry!” Pan yelled to the others, as she and the teenager fought to keep the blanket pulled tight and the guard’s arms to his side and wrestle him to the ground. “Get the door!”
“Help!” the other boys cried. “Help!”
No one moved. In another moment, roused by the commotion, half a dozen other guards had rushed in, pulling the blankets from their colleagues’ heads and administering shocks to Jun and the two teenage boys. Pan they left alone: she registered the surprise on their faces, seeing she was female. “Wait!” she screamed. “Please!” They ignored her and gave Jun and the other boys a few halfhearted kicks as they left, bloodying Jun’s nose, taking their still-laden cart with them.
After that another vote was taken: Pan and Jun and the teenage boys weren’t allowed anywhere near the staff door in the mornings.
“You’ll get us into trouble,” the woman with the perm scolded them. “Don’t you realize, we depend on them for everything?”
“We could have escaped, if more of you had just helped,” Jun said angrily, rubbing his head, still sore from being struck by the baton.
“Yes, and what would we have done once we got there?” said a man with a small, pointed face and a shadow of a mustache, who monopolized the bathroom in the morning. “Do you think we wouldn’t have been punished?”
“We just wanted to get out,” Pan pleaded. “We have important things to do outside.”
“Are you saying the rest of us don’t have important things to do outside?” the woman with the perm said indignantly.
“It’s not the guards’ fault,” the construction worker said abruptly, and everyone turned to him in surprise. It was rare for him to say anything at all.
That night, without saying anything to anyone, Pan defiantly pulled her mattress across the platform, close to Jun’s. In the middle of the night, after she’d gotten up to use the bathroom, she came back and lay down, tensing, wondering if he was awake. After a few minutes, she stretched out her arm and let her hand rest on top of his blankets, where it stayed for perhaps thirty seconds, until he grabbed it and pulled it inside. She let out a low laugh and rolled toward him.
Two months after they were stranded, the country’s state broadcaster sent a team to do a report on the group, sending reporters to film their badminton games and to interview the passengers. The guards let them respectfully through as the stationmaster, a woman they’d never seen before, wearing a shiny badge and a black tricornered hat, supervised.
The reporters moved through the crowd, picking their subjects. “Sometimes I despair, but I trust in the authorities,” the middle-aged woman with a perm said, lip trembling, in the clip that all the news stations aired that evening. “Together we’ll get this train moving!”
Back in the studio, the broadcaster nodded and intoned to the camera, “The spirit of Gubeikou Station is strong.”
The next day, theirs was a front-page item, under the headline GUBEIKOU SPIRIT. The newspapers carried each of their names, in a double-page spread, along with their photos, opposite an editorial that praised them for their bravery, for “inspiring a nation with their fortitude and optimism.”
The atmosphere in the tunnel changed as they pored over the papers the guards had brought that morning, examining their photos. The woman with the perm asked for, and was promised, extra copies.
After breakfast, the retired professor called a meeting. “It’s time we organized ourselves,” he said. “We have been here two months, and we may be here much longer. The nation is watching us,” he said sententiously. “We need to be role models.”
Pan made a face and turned to Jun, waiting to see his expression, but to her surprise his eyes were trained on the professor’s face, and he was nodding.
“Look at this trash,” the professor said, gesturing at the detritus around the tables where they’d eaten. “The bathrooms are a mess, too. We need to organize cleanup crews. We need discipline. We need a schedule.”
There was a sound of general assent. “We represent the Gubeikou Spirit!” he said. “We need to come together.”
Soon the group had drawn up a list of tasks. Jun volunteered to lead the cleanup crews. The woman with the perm said she’d help run morning calisthenics. The schoolteacher said she’d tutor the children, and asked for volunteers to help. Another woman offered to lead a team to do regular laundry: two items per person per week. They would use the bathroom sinks. The construction worker said he would hang some clotheslines.
A sudden camaraderie seemed to have seized the group. Looking around, Pan felt her skepticism weaken. “I’ll help work with the children on their sums,” she offered, and felt herself embraced by a smile from the teacher.
The woman with the perm began singing a chorus from the Train Goddesses’ song, giggling, shuffling her hips. A little self-consciously, as though they were on camera, the rest of the crowd caught the tune, too:
Thank you for your cooperation, please line up, do not push
Be a civilized passenger, for your safety and that of those around you
We’ll get there together.
After that news broadcast, donations started to flood into the station. First it was pallets of dehydrated beef sticks and tins of cookies. Then a store donated piles of new down jackets. One culinary school down the street offered to have its trainees cook for them, and fresh, hot meals began arriving twice a day. To the group’s delight, someone sent an old karaoke machine as well, and soon the afternoons were punctuated by the sound of people warbling lustily, taking turns at the microphone.
The guards, too, turned unexpectedly solicitous. After seeing TV commercials for a new kind of fried chicken, the guards brought them samples. When the retired professor complained he was chilly, they sent in an electric heater. When the group wearied of their existing stock of videos, more arrived.
“It’s better here than on the outside,” a few of the stranded passengers were heard to joke, and others agreed.
Every now and then, the announcements still sounded—“The next train will be delayed. We thank you for your understanding”—but at longer intervals now, and someone had turned the volume down. It was possible, at times, to forget that they were even in a train station. After the news broadcast, more reporters kept arriving, and with them new comforts, as well. The stationmaster ordered couches and more television sets. There was a new program featuring the palace intrigue and romances of a family with two daughters unlucky in love that the group assembled daily to watch, shouting and jeering at one sister, cheering the other on, Pan’s head curled on Jun’s shoulder.
And meanwhile, the train system kept growing. In the distance, if they craned their necks just right, they could sometimes hear the sound of hammering and drilling. There were twenty-eight lines now open throughout the city, the newscasters said. By the end of the year, there’d be twenty-nine. “With the Gubeikou Spirit,” an anchor said one night, “we will continue to persevere, to build the world’s most advanced train system!”
At that, the crowd on the platform cheered. They were more considerate of one another, stood a little more upright. The mayor had come to see them, had shaken their hands and posed for a photo before a red banner that bore the words GUBEIKOU SPIRIT. In the mornings, after calisthenics, they ran twenty laps around the platform together, laughing as they tried to round the corners without knocking into one another. In the afternoons, they traded off taking care of the baby, who had grown a soft cloud of hair and begun issuing her sunshiny smile to anyone who looked at her.
To her surprise, Pan found she liked working with the children, helping them with their math, joining them as they colored. On large sheets of paper, she encouraged them to create jungle scenes and geometrical patterns, big whorls of colors and diamonds that they taped to the subway walls.
It was only late at night that her thoughts turned, reluctantly, to her father. By now, surely the neighborhood committee had taken charge of his care, she told herself. Perhaps he didn’t miss her, she thought—some days he was so confused. She was a poor caretaker, she thought guiltily, working long hours, always away: he might do better in a real institution.
Still, lying near Jun, she found herself restlessly trying to conjure up new methods of escape anyway. They could revolt en masse and climb over the turnstiles—surely some of them would get away. They could refuse food, refuse water.
The next morning, Jun would gently dissuade her. “At this point, we just need to be patient,” he said. “We’ve done all we can. If you haven’t noticed,” he added, “most people here are actually pretty happy.”
He got up and went to play badminton; in recent weeks he’d begun a heated competition with the construction worker. Disgustedly, Pan ate two extra bowls of ramen for lack of anything else to do, and then stopped. Across the way, the calisthenics woman had started up the karaoke machine and was beginning a bouncy rendition of a folk tune with two other women. Pan lay down, shut her eyes, and again fell into a deep slumber.
One morning, the guards came in and affixed a new circular to the walls. Attention, it ran. Gubeikou Station is currently conducting track work. Passengers are advised to stay off the tracks until further notice.
A ripple of interest ran briefly through the group, then dissipated. The woman with the perm was diligently leading an aerobics session, which was running behind because a few people had slept late, and the group was anxious to finish and have their breakfasts (fried mushrooms and steamed rice porridge with pickled vegetables, which smelled very good indeed). It was an unnecessary notice, anyway: Jun and the teenage boys had long ago given up their quest to find a way out through the tunnels.
Shortly after the notice went up, another train arrived. Everyone paused what they were doing and looked up as a rushing sound grew nearer, and a horn sounded full blast. Some of the children moved toward the platform, but the adults simply froze and watched. The locomotive, when it entered, was full of people, they saw: a pack of dusty-faced commuters looking tired and sallow under the fluorescent lights. It zoomed forward without slackening its speed, and, in another moment, it was gone.
Afterward, the adults went back to quietly chatting, struck by seeing so many strangers after so many months. “That was strange,” the professor said aloud, as though to himself.
“They looked so unhappy,” someone said.
“It’s not easy, being outside,” the calisthenics woman said, nodding.
Someone turned on the television: the evening newscast was starting up again. Jun and two women on duty moved around and began collecting plates and stacking them on platters for the guards to remove the next day.
That night the newscast was about the job losses being suffered at two steel refineries that were shutting down. For several weeks, the news had all been in a similar vein, a steady drumbeat; the economy was slowing. There was a crime spree in certain neighborhoods; news anchors advised viewers to lock their doors. “Sad,” the construction worker said with a sigh, and the others agreed.
After that, trains started coming into the station every day or two. Sometimes they arrived with horns blaring, other times they silently sped through, all their lights off. Twice they saw that the cars had people inside: once, another group of commuters, and another time, a man in an orange repair suit who stood alone, tinkering with a light.
Each time the train never slowed, never stopped. While most of them learned to ignore their appearances, their repeated arrivals seemed to drive one woman, with a spotted face and a badly knitted sweater, over the edge. After each one departed, she would sit in a corner rocking back and forth by herself, muttering. When the next train arrived, she would chase it and pound her arms against the swift-moving body of the locomotive, terrifying those around her, who eventually began forcibly restraining her whenever one arrived. “She could hurt herself like that,” they said to one another. “She could fall onto the tracks.” But the trains came at all hours of day and night, and it wasn’t possible to watch her. Eventually they asked the guards for a short length of chain with which to tether her to a drainpipe by the bathroom.
They moved her mattress and placed a television set in front of her. “It’s for your own good,” they told her. “We don’t want you to get hurt.” The woman howled at first, but eventually quieted.
The woman reminded Pan of her father. In the afternoon, she would sit and draw pictures by her side as the woman watched, fascinated. She began bringing her plates of food during meals, to make sure she ate properly.
“More celery,” she’d say, imitating herself when she was with her father. “Eat some fruit.” The woman would make an assortment of pleased-sounding noises at Pan’s attentions. It could not be determined if she had always been so incoherent, or if it was life at Gubeikou that had made her so.
When the trains came, the woman would rise up and lunge at them, as though the locomotive had wronged her family in a past lifetime, her chain rattling. The other passengers speculated about her quietly: Where had she been going the day they’d been stranded, anyway? What would happen to her when they were freed?
“Poor thing, no work unit would want her. She’s lucky she wound up here.”
The professor had the bright idea of finding the long-ago newspaper article that had listed all those stranded. Together, they located her picture wonderingly: it said she was an accountant.
A chorus of indignation broke out. “Not possible—look at her,” the professor said.
“It must be an error,” the others said.
Then one day, the train snuck up on them. It was late in the evening. The kids were playing down on one end of the platform, by the badminton net. They had just finished eating their dinner, roast pork and steamed rice and braised bamboo shoots, and now that the plates had been stacked and put aside, most of the group was congregated around the television, watching a detective show. Pan was leaning back in her chair, her legs casually slung over Jun’s lap, comfortably encased in one of the newly donated sweatshirts the guards had unpacked the other day, which read GUBEIKOU SPIRIT across their fronts. It was a Friday, but it might as well have been a Tuesday or a Wednesday; it made no difference—all the days ran together. The atmosphere was warm and convivial: the retired professor was already nodding off in his chair, and around the table, some of the others smiled at the sight.
The volume on the television was turned up, and it was only the sound of metal rasping against metal that made them look up. Across the way, a beam of light was streaming through the tunnel: another train was coming through. Down the platform, the woman was on her feet, yanking futilely at her chain and lunging forward, her chain clanging noisily against the pipe. The group frowned. “Calm down!” the middle-aged woman with the perm shouted.
The rushing sound of the train was quieter than usual, though, and in another moment the group realized why. The train wasn’t moving that quickly; in fact, it was slowing down. It had stopped. In another moment the train’s doors had opened with a merry chime. The train car was empty. Its insides had a faintly yellow cast, the carpet dirty and worn.
“It’s stopped!” someone cried. Pan stood and gazed at the open doors, heart pounding, joy and fear coursing through her veins in equal measure.
The group was silent. On the screen, a detective was rushing down a set of stairs in pursuit of a woman in flight. Pan turned toward her sleeping pallet to grab a few possessions. No, there wasn’t time. “Jun!” she called. “It’s here!”
He was still seated, slowly tying his laces. “It might not be safe,” the professor warned. No one moved.
“We should ask first,” one of the others muttered. “Find out what’s going on.”
“This could be our only chance!” cried Pan. A few wary pairs of eyes glanced over from the television. “Come on, get up! What have we been waiting for?”
The train’s warning chime sounded: in another moment, the doors would close. “Hurry!” she yelled, but the others stayed seated. Incredulous, she wrenched her eyes from the group and hurtled toward the train, socked feet flashing white. Farther down the platform, she heard the sound of the woman’s metal chain rasping and felt a twinge of guilt, but kept running. Two of the teenage boys rose and joined her. The doors slid shut. “Pan, wait!” Jun shouted.
She didn’t hear him. She stood panting, exhilarated and afraid. She was already through the door.