I knew I shouldn’t do it. I knew it would get me into trouble.
I have this really bad habit. Whenever I go to school in the morning and come back home at night, I put on my headphones. Music just makes the subway ride more bearable. I know, I know, it basically tunes out the rest of the world, making it more than a little dangerous, especially when it’s midnight and I’m walking down a deserted street.
It started when I got to Beijing, actually. My commute to Peking U is usually between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, depending on if I leave during rush hour or not. I start by boarding a bus for about four stops, then getting onto the subway, lines 13, 10, and 4. In the beginning, I’d just put in my headphones during the subway ride, and only when I was sitting down with a full view of the train. That way I could listen to my lessons and get a little extra practice in before school.
Gradually, I lost my fear of giving up my hearing. I started listening to music on the bus ride. I listened to it between subway stops. Finally, I plugged my headphones in from the moment I left the house until the moment I stopped at the street vendor for my daily breakfast pancake-thing.
I know the dangers. When I first got to college, it was drilled into us. Never walk anywhere with your headphones in, especially at night. People will see you. People will target you. You won’t hear them coming. You’ll be distracted, no matter how vigilant you try to be. You’ll be in danger.
I think my trouble is that I never think anything bad will happen to me. Yeah, yeah, I could get mugged and murdered somewhere between Zhongguancun and Huilongguan while Green Day blares in the background. But that would never happen to ME. That kind of stuff only ever happens to other people.
So, when I stepped off the bus last night and onto the empty street a few blocks from my apartment complex, I thought nothing of my Queen background music. I thought nothing at all.
Well, that’s not true. I did notice one thing: the bus I took had four or five monks sitting in the back, talking in solemn voices. I remember thinking it was strange because, while I’d seen monks in Beijing, their dull yellow robes sweeping the floor of the surprisingly clean subway station, I’d never seen them out as far as Changping. Then again, I am pretty new here, so what do I know? I observed them quietly for a while, and one offered me a friendly smile.
So I stepped off the bus, thinking about monks and religion and Shaolin and Hong Kong action films. I hummed along to Killer Queen as I strode down the street.
You know, I probably never would have heard it, if not for my broken headphones.
I haven’t replaced them because I love these headphones. They’re big black Skullcandy headphones that fit over my ears. Yes, that makes them more obvious, making me even more of a target, but I love the feeling of barricading my ears against the cacophony of the world. Also the tiny earbuds that came with my iPod hurt my ears like no other… seriously, how can anyone wear them?
But as much as I love these headphones, a few weeks ago I began to notice the sound scratching in and out of the right side. I remember looking down at my chord with dismay, seeing the damage that I’d somehow managed to inflict on it. Maybe I could just replace it? But until I got home, I was stuck with my broken headphones.
As I was walking down the street, I began to notice there was a strange sound.
At first, I attributed it to the lopsided headphones. Of course my beautiful Queen sounded different, one side wasn’t playing. I tried to ignore it, but it persisted, even when the song switched to something by Nickelback (Why is that still on my iPod? That’s the real horror story here).
I switched off my music and removed my headphones, taking a quick look around. I was sure I wouldn’t see anything, but it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?
Nothing happens to me. I’m normal. This kind of stuff only happens to other people. No one will be behind me.
Except, someone was.
I had just reached the traffic light and he was all the way back at the previous intersection. An entire block stood between us and that should have been comforting enough. Except… except it wasn’t. As soon as I saw him, I knew he wanted me.
He was standing straight and tall, his arms reaching out towards me. Although I couldn’t see his eyes so far away, I could feel his stare burning into me. And even though I could tell by his stature and size that he was a man, he was wearing some kind of long robe that swayed in the wind.
I think I stared at him for a full minute, trying to make sense of the situation, before I realized that I should really, really, REALLY just keep heading home. I was about to turn around when he finally moved.
It was the strangest thing. He… hopped. That’s right, hopped. His stiff outstretched arms bounced as each hop brought him closer to me, his unnatural stiffness locking his legs into place. His body shuddered with each jump, as though it was a terribly painful way to move. And yet move he did, and the more he moved, the faster he became, each landing violently jolting and shaking his frame. It might have been funny if not for what I saw next.
As he grew closer and closer, I began to see what he looked like. I recognized his clothing from some Chinese films I’d seen before coming to school. He looked like an official, with his long robe and round, rimmed hat, maybe from the Qing dynasty. But the cloth was torn and dirty, as though he’d been dragged through the mud. There were holes in his hat where wayward strands of hair snuck out, whipping back and forth in the wind that pulled at the already-strained clothing.
He got closer.
His skin was pale, so pale that it was… wait. Not white. Blue. Blue as though he’d been strangled. I could see something strange growing on the skin, something creeping along his flesh as though it could consume him. On his cheek a piece of skin had been torn and was peeling away, but I couldn’t see any blood.
He got closer.
His fingernails had fallen off and the skin underneath was black. His lips were torn to shreds, hanging down like threads from his swollen face. There was an awful stench filling the air as I noticed the maggots crawling in his black eyes.
He got closer.
He was mere feet away from me when I found my voice and managed a scream. The vigorous hopping caused his flesh to tear and sway as though it was about to fall off of his skin. The maggots thrashed in his flesh as his braided hair swung back and forth like a horse’s tail. He began to open the maw of his mouth, revealing what appeared to be a collection of what were once teeth, now ground to tiny sharp knives, knives that ripped at his already disintegrating lips as he gnawed at his own mouth.
I screamed and screamed, certain it was the end for me. I couldn’t run now, not even if I wanted to. As I looked into those black eyes, I wondered what it would feel like to have those teeth ripping into my face…
And I would have died, had not the monk from the bus stepped in front of me. The one who smiled. He intervened so calmly, so smoothly, that for a moment I began to wonder if there really was such a horrible monster in front of me, lusting after my vitality.
You know how in the exorcism movies, the priest always mutters some moving prayer to banish the demon? Well, this monk was silent. He didn’t scream, he didn’t invoke whatever spirit he believes in, nothing. He simply produced a small mirror from the inside of his robe and held it up for the monster to see.
I saw the thing’s eyes flashed to the mirror – the first time he had taken his eyes off me since I saw him standing at the intersection – and the change was immediate. His jaw suddenly dropped open as though it had been unhinged, the lower jawbone ripped inhumanely from its counterpart and left to dangle by the remaining bits of flesh on his face.
And the noise, oh god, the noise.
I don’t even know if you can call it that. I knew it was emitted from deep within what remained of his chest, but somehow it felt as though it came from all around us. It was as though the very air was vibrating, shaking with wrath and fear and hatred and pain. I could feel the sound shake through me, invading my heart and causing tremors in my hands. I held my hands to my ears and screamed again. Oh, please, anything but that horrible sound.
And then, all at once, it stopped. A deep quiet settled over the street like a thick, insulating blanket.
It took me a few seconds before I was finally willing to look up. When I did, I saw the monk, along with his friends. I realized that they’d been standing behind me as he battled with the unholy beast. He was looking at me with sympathy while his friends whispered back and forth.
The monster was nowhere to be seen.
The monk looked at me and said slowly, in very clear Chinese, “You should get home. You’re safe now.”
My throat felt as though it was full of cotton. My heart trembled wildly in my chest as the men turned to leave. My whole body shook as I called out.
The monks turned to look back at me.
“What… what was that?” I stared into my savior’s deep brown eyes, searching their severity for any hint of logic that could explain what I’d just seen.
With a calm, even gaze, he uttered one word.
I think I’ll leave my headphones at home from now on.