The Night Cyclist

By Stephen Graham Jones

“The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones is a horror novelette about a middle-aged chef whose nightly bicycle ride home is interrupted by an unexpected encounter.

There must be no compulsion to hide the bodies. Otherwise I’d have never found them.

It was a Tuesday night.

I was riding home after work, my leather roll of knives strapped across my back. I’d left my apron on the hook at the restaurant, but I still smelled like the kitchen. Before Doreen had moved out two months ago, she’d jokingly accused me of having a series of affairs at work, and that I was trying to mask the scent of all those other women with garlic and turmeric. It had been funny, a running joke, at least until the new sous-chef needed me to walk her through cleanup again after hours, and then leaned back into me while I was reaching around her to demonstrate where the fryer basket clicked in.

I had been with Doreen four years, then. And the sous-chef—what the cheating man says in stories is that she didn’t mean anything. But that’s not right. That’s not fair. What she meant for me, it was a way out.

So far, this is how my life’s gone, pretty much. I do all this work to build a thing—in this case trust, a relationship, someone to watch stupid television with, someone who lets me sleep late because chefs keep different hours—and then, once the Jenga tower gets tall enough to look a little bit scary, I start pulling out blocks, seeing how far I can skeletonize my life before it all comes crashing down again.

Taking the bike paths home each night after work, though, it reminds me that I wasn’t always like this. There was a time. It was college. I was on the racing team. The university was buying us the latest bikes, sleek things, bullets with wheels—we weighed them in grams—and the sponsors were supplying us with the same shorts and helmets and gloves and glasses the pros wore, and every day my legs were pumping, pushing, pedaling. That was the only time I hadn’t started pulling out blocks, as it were. If college had lasted forever, I’d still be out riding, just zoning out at forty miles per hour, choosing the line I was going to take, just like Coach was always saying. You have to choose your line.

Coming home at two in the morning, Velcroed into my old racing shoes that have the clips worn down to nubs—dull little nubs my pedals know like a ball knows its socket—I could pretend that life had never ended. That I was still me. That I hadn’t run Doreen off on purpose. That I wouldn’t run the next Doreen off just the same.

All the other kitchen staff who biked in and out, their bikes were these bulky hybrids. Some were even labeled “comfort.”

The comfort in riding—it’s not physical, it’s spiritual.

My bike’s built for racing, still and always. Aggressive stance, the bars dialed low so you have to lie down on the top tube, pretty much. A butt-floss saddle canted forward like I’m a time trial racer.

The only concession to middle age, I suppose, is the light clamped to the handlebars. It makes me feel old, but I’d feel older if I endo’d into the creek. The trail between the restaurant and my apartment is lit up intermittently, these pale yellow discs you kind of float through, but there are plenty of long, dark tree-tunnels over those two and a half miles. Those tunnels are fun to shoot in the dark, don’t get me wrong, but the dark isn’t the thing to worry about.

The whole year, there’d been a battle going on in the opinion pages of the newspaper. Motorists were bullying bikers, bikers were kicking dents into fenders and doors. Nobody’d been hurt too bad yet, but it was coming. One of us was going to get nudged a bit too hard by a bumper, nudged hard enough to get pulled under the car, and the motorist was going to walk for it like they always do, and then cyclists were going to be riding side by side from one ditch to the other, stopping traffic for miles.

It had happened before, and it was happening again. Even up in the mountains. Apparently—this just going from what I read, as I stick to asphalt and concrete—the hikers had been sabotaging the trail against mountain bikers. Deadfalls, rocks, the occasional spike. Helmets or no, riders were getting hurt.

And now it had come to town.

For five nights in a row, there’d been driftwood from the creek dragged up onto the trail.

It was then I’d relented, finally started running a headlight. And the headlight was how I saw them. The bodies.

Two guys, young, floating in the shallows where the creek turns west.

On the shore was the large piece of driftwood they’d been trying to dislodge, to drag up across the trail. It was too much for two people. But they were the only ones there.

One of them was floating facedown in the water. The other was on his back.

His throat was gone.

No blood was seeping from it.

They were on the news by seven in the morning, the two dead kids. College students from one of the farming towns on the eastern plains. I had considered reporting them myself, but it was just a fluke of timing that I’d been the one to find them, I decided. Someone else would come along at about daybreak. Boulder’s full of concerned citizens, people for whom it would be a rush to get involved.

Me, I was tired. We had two new bussers. You wouldn’t think a couple of non-lifers that low on the food chain would change the dynamic of a kitchen that much, but dishes, they’re our lifeblood. It had been chaos and emergency, from the first group reservation on. I deserved to just come home, watch some vapid cop drama until the sun came up.

The last bit of the news I saw was the weather.

The spring melt was coming down hard. Tonight the creek was going to be lapping at the concrete of the trail again.

Awake again by three in the afternoon, I clamped my bike up onto the rack by the breakfast bar—by what would have been the breakfast bar—and administered to its various needs. The same way soldiers in movies are always taking their weapons apart and reassembling them, old cyclists, we like to perform our own maintenance.

Old.

I’m even starting to say it.

When Doreen was leaving for good and ever, was on her last walk-through to be sure the last four years of her life were completely boxed up, we’d of course had to have it out a little. The main thrust of her accusation involved me just wanting to feel young again. That I’d never let that part of myself go completely, like other men did when it was time to grow up.

I hadn’t had any accusations for her to feed on, to cultivate, to take with her and coat with saliva like a pearl. Just apologies, and very little eye contact, and one last offer of the apartment, which we both knew had just been a gesture, as it had been mine when we’d met.

For dinner I ate sliced deli turkey straight from the container. Hang around a hospital for even ten minutes, you’ll see the nurses huddled up at the handicapped entrance, stabbing cigarettes into their mouths. Hang around chefs long enough, you’ll find us in the fast-food drive-throughs of the world. There we’ll be, walking out of the gas station with a bag of chips for dinner, so we can have enough energy to plate some salmon at sixty-per.

The world doesn’t make sense.

I tuned the news back on.

The eyewitness—a senior citizen in a tracksuit with actual stripes on the sleeve and legs—was telling her story about finding the bodies.

I watched the woods behind her, where the camera didn’t mean to be looking.

At first I thought I was looking for myself—stupid, I know—but what I saw, what nobody else was seeing, it was a pair of cycling glasses, hanging by their elastic band from a small, bare sapling pushing up through the dank brush, way over in the ditch you never ford into, because you know it’s a literal dumping ground for the homeless population.

What got me to hit the rewind button, then the pause button, it wasn’t as simple as castoff equipment. I’ve peeled out of I don’t know how many sunglasses and gloves and jerseys while riding, because I didn’t have time to dispose of them properly, but needed the ounce or two they’d free me of.

What got me to hit the stop button was the color pattern on the elastic band.

It was from a company that had been defunct since my junior year of college.

And these glasses, they weren’t for the sun. They were clear. The kind you wear when riding at night, when what you need is a gnat-shield, goggles to keep you from tearing up, to keep the world from blurring away.

And they were ten years old, at least. They had to be.

I ate my turkey from the bag and I kept those clear glasses paused on the screen. Just watching them.

My twenty-year-old self would have been disgusted, but when it started drizzling at five in the afternoon, and I was scheduled to meet the two new bussers twenty minutes before dinner prep—six—I accepted the ride downtown Glenda next door was offering. She asked after Doreen, said it had been too long since we’d been over for drinks. I agreed.

Because she saw how I’d tried to shield my newly spotless bike from the water, loading it into her Honda’s hatchback, she backed up between the restaurant’s dumpsters for me.

I grabbed my roll of knives and told her to drop in this week, tell the hostess she was my guest and, once again, she said she might just do that, thanks. Did she know Doreen was gone? Was this a game we were playing? I didn’t know, but it was too late to stop.

I nosed my bike into the space past the line of coat hooks, chained it to the handrail like always. The components alone are probably two grand—all Campy, all high-end—and, while I’d like to think restaurant staff are good people, I also consider myself something of a realist.

Only one of the bussers showed up for my hands-on training. I should have gone easy on him, repaid his loyalty or discipline or stupidity or whatever it was, but instead I just heaped all the attitude and scorn I had on him, and told myself that this is how it is for everyone, starting out in the kitchen. You’re tough or you’re gone. If I was chasing him off with this, then I was doing him a favor.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2016/09/21/the-night-cyclist/

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