Nathan scowled at the traffic light. The sticky air was suffocating. Sweat ran down his spine and soaked through his shirt to his backpack. He was standing over his bike, his right leg on the pavement, his left still clipped into the pedal. The light had turned red just as he’d gotten to the intersection and now he had to wait in the sun for who knew how long. His helmet felt tight. There would be red marks where it had pressed into his forehead when he took it off. A man sitting in the passenger seat of a sedan next to him with the window rolled down hacked up a wad of phlegm and spat it across the front of his bike onto the pavement near his foot. Nathan glared at the man, but when he didn’t meet his eye, he glared at the traffic light, willing his Vulcan mind powers to change it to green. He hated Beijing summers.
Normally, Chinese bicyclists rushed the traffic signals and stopped as close to the line as possible, sometimes driving halfway into the crosswalk to be ready for the light to change, often using the stoplight to overtake the others and better their ranking in the sprint to the next light. But now, the other cyclists had stopped 20 feet behind the white line to greedily hog the shadow cast across the bike lane by a single scraggly tree. Nathan would have backed his bike up so he could be out of the sun as well, but there wasn’t any space. Instead, he stood and scowled and wondered why he’d come to this miserable city in the first place.
The light changed and he clipped back into the pedal. He had ridden all the way to Wudaokou, but this afternoon, he wasn’t thinking about rabies, or even Cream’s disappearance or the trip to her apartment. He was preoccupied with inventing curses for his student. It was a princeling, whose super rich and politically well positioned daddy had bought him a position in university, sparing him any ambition to do his own work. Nathan had been hired by the boy’s parents to improve his pitiful grasp of English, but the boy himself had no intention of learning anything. So Nathan rode his bike on a fool’s errand in the murderous heat of summer.
Just as he crossed the road, a gold BMW SUV shot out of the lane on his left and nearly hit Nathan as it whizzed around the corner. For inexplicable reasons, traffic laws in China didn’t require right-hand turns to stop at red lights before proceeding to turn. Drivers generally interpreted the law to mean they also needn’t bother looking for oncoming traffic, pedestrians or cyclists.
The larger, faster, more expensive BMW hardly seemed to notice Nathan’s bicycle as it cut the corner, trusting oncoming traffic to yield to its will. Nathan, having lived too long in Beijing to passively relinquish his traffic rights, released his fury by yelling at the car and keeping to his planned path. The gold sedan continued on its projection, unresponsive to Nathan’s verbal onslaught. Nathan was too slow in this game of chicken, however, and when he realized he’d lost, he veered right, turning the handlebars too tightly. His front wheel slipped on the pavement. He yanked his right knee up, desperate to unclip his shoe from the pedal before he was ground into the asphalt. The foot sprung free just in time as the bike crashed to the pavement. Reflexively, Nathan stuck his right hand out and caught himself on the asphalt, his hand burning as the scorching ground took off a layer of skin and replaced it with dirt and gravel.
The BMW was gone, leaving Nathan to pick himself up from the bike lane. He unclipped his left foot and stood up over the tangle of his bike.
The front tire had been pinched against the metal frame of the wheel when he swerved too quickly, and now as he dragged his bike out of traffic before another idiot clobbered him, he saw the tire was already flat. His shoes click-clacked as he walked, his toes pointing upward from the pedal clips in the treads. The handlebars had been pushed out of line from the front wheel with the force of his fall, obliging him to pull the bike gawkily beside him. As he limped to the side of the road, he realized the shoes weren’t the same height. Once across, he picked up his right foot and was astounded to find he hadn’t so much unclipped from the pedal, but rather ripped the shoe from the clip that had earlier been screwed into the sole of his shoe, leaving the clip still attached to the pedal, bolts and all. His knee throbbed.
On the sidewalk, in relative safety, Nathan made a quick triage report, concluding he was relatively unscathed. But he wasn’t about to thank his lucky stars. He cursed the idiot driver and damned the fools who had thought it a good idea to import cars into this lawless nation. Nathan faced the bike from head-on and straddled the front wheel, forcing the handlebars back into line. Then he wondered why he’d bothered. He didn’t have a spare tube for his wheel or even functional bike shoes.
He scanned the other corners of the intersection, hoping to see a small bike repair stand. He’d heard that fifteen years ago, when everyone rode bikes, there were small repair trailers on every corner. But now only the very poor and the very foreign rode on two wheels without a motor. He propped the bike against a signpost and before he unhooked the lock from under his seat, swung his backpack off his shoulders and hooked it on a handlebar, taking the opportunity to peel the back of his shirt away and let some air onto his sweaty back. He unhooked the lock from the bike and wrapped it through the back wheel and frame, then around the pole. He’d just have to come back and deal with it later.
As Nathan was bent over to lock his bike, someone bumped hard into him. He clicked the lock closed and stood up. When he turned he saw that the man who had pushed him was texting and, despite the disruption, had continued walking, head still down, eyes locked on his phone as if nothing had happened. Nathan rolled his eyes and was turning back when his animal brain glimpsed a familiar face in the crowd of pedestrians moving up the sidewalk toward him. Caught up in his current misfortune, Nathan didn’t immediately register who it was. But a lizard-like reflex signaling danger made him look again. Li Jun.
As Li Jun approached Nathan with the wave of pedestrians, his voice came into earshot. He was distracted, talking on his phone, his head studying the sidewalk as he walked. He wore a white button-down shirt with short sleeves and suit pants. He was speaking Chinese, not English, and his voice had its characteristic fast-slow rhythm. Li Jun passed, completely unaware of the American on his right, who stood turned away from the foot traffic as he simulated locking a mangled bicycle to a signpost.
Nathan stood motionless, stunned for a moment. Then moved to action, he called out. “Hey! Li Jun! stop!”
He yanked the backpack off the handlebars, but a strap caught and pulled the front wheel sideways, causing the bike to lose balance and fall to the ground as the bag swung free. Nathan grabbed the bike, straightening the front wheel and forcing it to stand against the pole, the lock pulling against his efforts. Finally free, he swung one arm through the strap of his backpack and started running to catch up.
The man had turned his head when he heard Nathan yell his name. He paused as he tried to place Nathan. But when recognition registered on his face, he turned away. Instead of stopping, he hung up the phone, slipped it into his pants pocket, and started walking faster.
“Li Jun! Stop! I’ve been trying to find you!” Nathan called again, the commotion with his bike having made him lose proximity to the Chinese man. He slipped his other arm through the backpack strap as he started running to catch up. The backpack had a hip strap which Nathan usually buckled but he left it to flap against his leg as he ran.
Li Jun’s gait changed from a brisk walk to a run, as he glanced over his shoulder and saw the American dodging through the foot traffic to catch up.
Nathan realized the BMW had actually been a funny sort of blessing—he would have never noticed this one average man with black hair, in a nondescript short sleeved shirt, talking on a phone like half the other pedestrians.
Nathan ran quickly, threading his way among the crowd, jumping aside to avoid a street vendor who’d laid his wares out on a towel in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Stop!” he shouted again, more urgently. Li Jun had seen Nathan and was clearly trying to evade him. Although the American was undoubtedly in better physical shape, Li Jun had the advantage of regular footwear. In contrast, Nathan’s one intact bike shoe made him slip on the paving stones, while the broken one gave him a pronounced limp.
Nathan was losing ground. His shoes were too unwieldy. People got in his way, crowding the sidewalk on their lunch break. A girl with a sun umbrella nearly poked his eye out as he ducked around her. If he fell, he’d lose the man altogether, and then what good would the bicycle-accident fates have been?
He stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street. Like a bad Chinese driver, he didn’t bother to check traffic behind him but prayed whoever might be coming was on a bike, and far enough behind him to stop or pass him. He ran around a car parked in the bike lane and tried to catch sight of Li Jun again.
Just as he came out from behind the car a boy on a moped shot out from a side street. The moped swerved to avoid Nathan, but didn’t make it. What Nathan had thought were bags of rice piled on the platform between the boy’s feet and on the back and sides came loose as the moped skidded on the ground, sliding across the road, the driver just managing to stumble free. Two of the bags broke, and not rice, but a wave of water gushed across the street as large fish flipped and jumped on the pavement, turning acrobatic twists in their new environment.
“Sorry,” he shouted as he leapt over a corner of the moped’s wheel, trying to miss the fish as he ran on.
He scanned the sidewalk ahead and saw his target dodge behind a group of girls walking with sun umbrellas that hid their faces, like nannies out for a stroll in London’s Hyde Park.
Nathan’s heart pounded, adrenaline pumped through his veins. He forgot about the fall, the throbbing of his right palm and knee, the broken bike wheel, even the heat, and simply ran, desperate to catch up with the Chinese man.
He reached the girls with sun umbrellas, but once he could see past their group, he could no longer find Li Jun. Then he noticed a ramp slightly behind him on his right, leading up to a high pedestrian bridge crossing the four-lane road. Li Jun was already near the top of the ramp and would soon be across the bridge. Nathan would have to double back. Then he looked across the lanes of traffic, and instead of turning back toward the ramp entrance, he ran across the bike lane and jumped up onto the grassy median between the bike lane and street. He stood between two gingko trees and looked left. Cars were coming at full speed toward him, but it was his only chance. Where was a traffic jam when you needed it? He spotted a small gap behind a bus. As soon as it had passed he started running across the street.
Cars honked and some slowed as they saw him crossing, but others assumed he would pass in time and didn’t bother to give up their precious space on the road. He ran as fast as he could across the lanes and jumped onto the five-foot white metal fence dividing the two directions of traffic. The fence was usually sufficient to deter people from crossing the four lanes of traffic and force them to take the pedestrian bridge overhead.
Nathan clawed at the fence with his bike shoes and swung his left leg up and over the top. It was purposefully designed without any high crossbars that could be used as climbing rungs. Nathan scrambled to pull his weight up and finally succeeded in sliding down the other side. Cars blared their horns. He hadn’t had the luxury of choosing a good time to cross the other half of the street. He stood tightly against the fence and then dove headlong through a gap in the cars and prayed the gods would help him one last time. A small rickshaw with a faded red velvet cover was inches away from running him down, but he reached the grass median just in time and dove through a tangle of dead bushes.
He had saved a little time. Li Jun was nearing the ramp exit while Nathan had only the width of the bike lane, the parking lane and a sidewalk ahead of him.
Why are you running? Nathan wanted to demand of the man. He had sought Nathan out. He had intimidated Nathan into meeting. And now, here he was, avoiding Nathan at all costs.
Nathan was across the bike lane and through the parked cars, but Li Jun had reached the end of the ramp and turned down a side street. Nathan followed. Two SUVs blocked the sidewalk, parked illegally on the curb. Nathan cursed as he ran around them and had to leap over the small moats where trees were hemmed in by paving stones and cement. It slowed him down and he wondered why he hadn’t just run up the bike lane once again. But there wasn’t time to analyze his poor judgment, because as he turned down the side street, he realized he’d lost his man again. The alley was empty.
Not empty, exactly. An old man walked down the street, holding a bar horizontally with a birdcage hanging from either end. He sang an old communist hymn as he walked, swinging the cages back and forth, on his way to a park. An old lady plodded along the other side of the alley, a chubby toddler holding her hand.
But there was no Li Jun. No skinny man with long fingers and the awkward run of someone who wasn’t used to the sport. Nathan ran up the alley. He was sure he’d seen him turn down this way. As he slowed, he passed the first apartment building and to his right, saw a door creaking closed on its own slow spring. He launched himself toward it, desperate to catch the door before it latched. If it were still closing, Li Jun had probably unlocked it to enter, and thus had been slowed ahead of Nathan. But if Nathan didn’t catch it, it would lock again, and he would lose his chance. He sprinted toward the door, but as he approached, the calculator in his head registered he would miss it.
With one last desperate attempt, he dropped his left arm behind him as he surged forward and let the backpack slip off his shoulder. He grabbed the right shoulder strap with his right hand and as he pulled it off, maintained momentum of the swing and flung the bag forward, still grasping the shoulder strap, hoping to catch it in the door. He leaped forward, the bag flying ahead of him.
The bag fell short.
But the hip strap continued moving, even as the bag reached its limit and, flying out past the bag, lodged itself between the door and the frame, holding it open just enough to prevent the latch from engaging. Nathan jerked the door handle toward him, picked his bag back up and stumbled inside.
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