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.

He must have needed the work.

The three times I came out to talk to tables—the first was someone I’d worked with years ago but wasn’t thrilled to see, and the other two were first dates showing off their food IQ, but masking it as simpering complaints—I made sure to linger long enough to see whether the groups huddled on the wrong side of the hostess podium were glittering with raindrops or not.

I’d left my bike at the restaurant overnight a few times before, either hitched a ride home with a server or manager or just cabbed it, but I wanted to get out and stretch tonight, if possible. Judging by my second two trips out to the dining room—dry shoulders from the hostess podium crowd—it just might be possible. Granted, there would be puddles, a slick spot or two, and my bike would need another thorough rubdown once I got home. But the wind in my face would make it worth it. It always did.

And, after a rain, the paths and bike lanes are usually devoid of traffic, completely lifeless. All mine.

Coach used to always tell us to choose our line, to stay focused on that, to not look anywhere else but the direction you’re going.

It was advice that worked in the kitchen as well.

The line I could see ahead of me, it led past cleanup, out the back door, down the bike lane for half a mile before swooping and banking onto the path for nearly three glorious, empty miles.

In the alley at two in the morning, my clothes steamed at first. It always made me feel like I was just touching down in this strange atmosphere, my alien fabric off-gassing, adjusting. It was just temperature differential, of course. It had been happening since I first started washing dishes, would clock out soaked from head to toe.

I usually wasn’t this wet by the end of the night, had already paid those dues, but, because I was ready to be shut of the kitchen, and because the captain has to go down with the ship, I’d stepped in beside Manny, our dishwasher of nine months. You can’t help getting sprayed, especially when you’re dealing with a ladle. But we got it done in half the time, racked the wine glasses so they wouldn’t spot, and then I saluted him off into the night, hung my apron on its hook, and rolled up my knives.

I should have been using them to cut up the day-old bread for croutons—a ten-minute job, with nobody tugging on my sleeve—but screw it. Sometimes you just have to walk away. Feed yourself first, right?

The bike lane away from the restaurant was as empty as I’d imagined.

I leaned back from the bars, planed my arms out to the side like I was twelve years old again.

What do people who lose that part of themselves do, I wonder?

When Doreen had accused me of not growing up, I’d felt parentheses kind of form around my eyes, the question right there in my mouth: And?

It’s not some big social or emotional impediment to still be able to close your eyes, pretend to be an airplane.

Some people hold on to that with video games, some with books about space, some with basketball or tennis, if their knees hold together.

For me it was a bike. For me it was this.

Soon enough the path opened up just across the creek, inviting me to slalom down it one more time, but I stopped mid-bridge, still clipped in, my arms crossed on the rail on the uphill side.

The melt was coming fast, and hard. The surface of the water breathed like a great animal, the sides of the creek surging up just over the bank, washing the concrete of the path and then retreating.

I was definitely going to be up until dawn, drying my bike out.

Somebody old and sensible, they probably would have gone the long way, the dry way.

My only concession was turning my headlight on, and hitching the strap of my knife-roll higher across my chest, like the bandolier it most definitely was.

The first mile, the water never even crested up over my valve stem. And, down here by the creek, the sound was massive. It felt like the mountains were bleeding out.

But I didn’t forget the promise I’d made earlier: A mile into it, right at the bend where the creek turned west, I stepped my right foot over the top bar, rode sidesaddle on my left foot, and looked behind me, at the rooster tail of mist I was leaving.

It was stupid. It was wonderful.

Before the bike rolled all the way to a stop, I stepped down into the grabby muck, hitched the bike up onto my arm like I was racing cyclo-cross.

What I was really doing was playing detective.

The mud in the tall grass and brush and tangle of vines and trash turned out to be sloppier than I’d hoped, but I trudged and clumped through it, picked those clear glasses off the naked sapling like the fruit they were.

I’d been right, that afternoon. These were seriously antique, from another decade of cycling gear.

Usually, something like this hung in a tree or set up on a rock with another rock there to keep it from blowing away, it was just what you did when you stumbled onto something somebody else had dropped. It was only kind. Surely they’d be back, looking for it, right?

This was too far out for that, though. There were closer places to the path to hang a piece of equipment.

I stood there by the sapling, raised the wet glasses to my face and looked through them. At the shiny path. At the silhouette of trees waving back and forth. At the creek where the two college kids had been floating.

For maybe twenty seconds, I couldn’t look away from that bend. It was like I was seeing them again. Like a puzzle piece in my head was nudging itself into some bigger picture. Before it could resolve, I looked over, to the right.

There was someone there. On a matte-black aluminum bike. You can tell aluminum from carbon by the turns in the frame.

Aluminum bikes, they’re ten years ago as well.

And the rider—where I was in kitchen rags, like usual for the ride home, he was in tights. Not shorts or a bib, but some kind of wet suit a surfer might wear: slick black like a second skin, ankle to neck to wrist.

It would have been terrible in the sun, and at night it had to be terrible as well, since there was no way your skin could breathe.

To match the black seal suit, this cyclist also had black shoes and black gloves, a flash of pale skin at wrist and ankle. No helmet. And—looking down to what I was holding—no glasses.

I held them out across the muck, through the misting rain, and in response, this night cyclist, he snarled.

I’d never seen anybody actually do that before. Like a dog you were happy was on a chain.

“What?” I said, only loud enough for myself, really. He was already whipping his bike away, standing to granny gear it through the silt just under the water.

When he looked back, his dank black hair was plastered to his white face.

And his eyes—they were all pupil.

Like smoke, like a whisper, he faded once he made the dry concrete.

For maybe ten seconds, I considered what had just happened.

And then I saw it for what it was: An invitation. A challenge. A dare.

I smiled, splashed through the tall grass, ran past the deep water, and hit the concrete running alongside my bike, catapulted up into the saddle already shifting hard, my nostrils wide because my lungs were about to need air.

It had been too long since I’d really gotten the opportunity—the need—to open up. Coach had diagnosed me early as a sprinter, and he’d kind of sneered when he said it, like there was no hope, really. He’d work with me, sure, but I was what I was.

For four years it made me faster, better, harder.

He was right, though: I’m a born sprinter. I’ll burn through my quads those first two miles, leave the whole pack in the dust.

It was one mile until the trail nosed up into the canyon for twenty vertical miles.

It was one mile, and this night cyclist, he only had about a half-minute head start.

If only Doreen could see me now.

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

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