“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.
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.
Where I finally saw him again, it was at the pond the low part of the trail had become, downtown.
He was standing there, one foot down in the water.
There’s no way I was making any more noise than the flooded creek, but still, as soon as I rounded the corner, he whipped his head back settled his black eyes on me.
I gave him a cocky two-fingered wave from my grips. He didn’t wave back. He was watching the water again.
My big plan was to walk my bike up beside him, so as to keep from whipping water into his face. Not like we weren’t both already soaked, but manners are manners, even at two in the morning, in the dark and the rain.
He never gave me the chance.
I was fifty feet away when he hauled his bike around, rode the lapping edge of the water through the wet grass, all the way up to the road, stepped down for just long enough to lift his bike up onto the cracked sidewalk that runs up there. He didn’t lift his bike because he didn’t have momentum—the climb he’d just made would have even taxed my sprinter’s legs in their prime—he lifted it because road bike rims, especially old aluminum ones like he was running, they’ll crimp in from that kind of action.
I bared my teeth just like he’d done, and I gave chase, having to run my bike up the last ten or fifteen yards, when my narrow road tires started to gouge into the mud.
By the time I clipped in on the sidewalk, he was a receding black dot in the car lane.
I ramped down off the curb at a handicapped place, and I gave my bike every last bit of myself I had.
We took the turn—on the road, not the path—up into the canyon maybe ten seconds apart, him running the beginning of the red light, me catching the end of it, leaned over too far for wet asphalt but I didn’t care anymore. My left pedal snagged on the blacktop, hitching the ass-end of the bike over a hiccup, but the tire caught somehow, and I rode it out. Watching my line. I was watching my line.
It led straight to him.
He looked back just like Coach was forever telling us not to, but it didn’t slow him or tilt him even a little.
A half mile after the turn, the road started its wicked uphill slope.
Twice I’d gone up it, but that was fifteen years ago, and the road had been barricaded off for the event, and I’d still been pretty sure I was going to have to sag wagon it. Not because I was a sprinter. Because I was human.
I’d promised myself never again.
But this was now. This was tonight.
I geared down, stood on the cranks.
He was there in my headlight. Not riding away. Just crosswise in the road, like a barricade himself.
I rear-braked, my rooster tail slinging past without me, like my intentions were going where I couldn’t.
The night cyclist wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t anything. He was just looking at me.
“I’ve got your—!” I said, pulling the clear glasses away from my neck, against the elastic.
He turned in a huff, uphill, and, because I had the jump, I figured I’d be alongside him in two shakes.
He was faster on the climb than I was. It wasn’t even close. Even with me screaming for my lungs to be deeper, for my legs to be younger, for the grade to flatten out.
It was like the mountain was sucking him uphill. And when he looked back on the first turn, his mouth wasn’t haggard and gasping like mine. He was calm, even. Not winded in the least.
Two miles into it, blood in my throat, I had to stop.
I threw up over the guardrail, then collapsed across it, not caring how it was chiseling into my midsection.
No headlights came along to hitch me down the hill, into town.
“What are you?” I said to the night cyclist, wherever he was.
Miles away by now, I thought. Or—watching me from the trees?
I tried to bore into the darkness, to catch his outline there, but then I was throwing up again, from deep, deep inside, like I was dry heaving all the years between who I was and who I had been, and then I climbed back into the saddle like the rag doll I was, rode my brakes home, taking the roads this time.
I was bonked by the time I crawled into my living room. The adrenaline had burned through all the blood sugar I had, and left me in the hole for more. I couldn’t remember the last time this had happened. I didn’t miss it. It was like having sludge for blood, and having to look at the world through one narrow, long straw.
I settled my bike against the back of the couch in exactly the way I never do—it was Doreen’s couch—unrolled my knives on the counter to be sure the oiled leather had kept them dry, and then I ate great heaping handfuls of corn chips and chocolate morsels from the pantry. Not because that’s any kind of magic formula, but because they were the first things I saw.
It took ten or twelve minutes, but I finally woke up enough to rack my bike, dry it with a hand towel from the kitchen, even going so far as to twist off the valve stem caps, blow any lingering droplets in there back onto my face.
Only after my bike was properly stabled did I change into dry clothes myself. Just some mountain bike shorts I’d only bought because they were on clearance and I had credit at that store. They were my house shorts, had a pocket right on the front of the thigh. My phone dropped into it perfectly.
I turned on the television to see if our race had been documented, but all up and down the dial it was just cop shows sentenced to ten years, hard syndication. The first time I woke still watching, I rolled off the couch, checked to make sure the front door was secure—never trust yourself when your blood sugar’s flatlined—then climbed into bed on what I was still calling my side. The way I turned the lamp off in the living room was by shutting my eyes.
The next time I woke, I wasn’t completely sure that’s what I’d just done. The way my legs were still both burning and noodled at the same time, I thought for a second that maybe I was at the end of a long ride, years ago. Something up in the peaks, in the thin, crisp air, permanent snow back in the shadows of the evergreen.
Was that where he lived, I wondered? The night cyclist?
Except—nobody could make that ride up the canyon. Any sane person would fork over the change for the bus. But this night cyclist, he hadn’t had a pack, hadn’t had a rack on his bike. If he did live up the hill, what was he even down here in the big wet for?
That would be more like suicide, having to make that climb after bopping all around town in the dark. And, yeah, now that that was on the table: the dark. No light? Nothing reflective to him at all. Like he just wanted to whip past, be already gone by the time the smear he’d been even registered to anybody on the trail that late.
“What are you?” I said out loud, but the comforter muffled my voice.
Which was good.
There was a shadow stretched out through the open doorway of my bedroom.
My heart gorged up into my throat.
And then, like my heart was that loud, the head of that shadow, it cocked around in a way I knew. A way I remembered.
It was him.
My first response was to curl deeper into the safety of my comforter.
My next response, it was to ask him how he’d done that. How he’d sprinted uphill, away from me, a born sprinter. And on a relic of a bike at that.
Keeping the blanket around my shoulders, I stood, shushed over into the doorway, for some reason superstitious about stepping directly into his shadow. Like it was a well I could fall into? Like that blackness was going to leech up through the print of my bare feet?
I don’t know. It was instinctual; it was automatic. It was polite. In magical places, you make all obeisance you might think proper.
He knew I was there, had probably clocked my approach from the exact instant I’d stopped breathing.
What he was holding, and considering, it was his clear glasses.
The reason he was considering them, it was that I’d put them on the plate Doreen had decreed the home for all glasses.
The reason he was reconsidering them, it was that right there in the bowl were mine. My daytime ones, polarized, iridescent, and my night ones, clear and sleek, the elastic tight and young. My clear ones were enough of an update on his that they were practically a reinvention.
He looked up to me, and his face, it was cut stone. Harsh, angular, pale. And those eyes. I’d been right, last time: The pupils or irises or whatever, they were blown out. There was hardly any white.
Of course he didn’t need a headlight.
Creatures of the night, they get along just fine in the darkness.
There were no eyebrows, either.
“What happened to you?” I almost said.
And his thighs—if I hadn’t seen him ride, I’d never have clocked him for a serious cyclist. A rider who can rabbit up the canyon even just a mile or two without breaking a sweat, his quads should be jodhpured out past what any denim could ever contain, with thick, veined calves to match. Like gorilla forearms.
His legs though, they were slender, smooth. Probably pale as his face, pale as those wristlets of white between his gloves and sleeve, between the cuff of his tights and the crescent of his shoe-tops.
He must be corded like steel, and wound tight.
At which point, finally, I cased the front door.
It was shut, the deadbolt still twisted tight.
Meaning—yep. Right on cue, the drapes over the sliding glass door billowed in, then sighed back out onto the balcony.
The third-floor balcony.
“I know what you did to those kids in the creek,” I said. “Before they were in the creek, I mean.”
It was supposed to be what kept him from coming for me. Knowledge. Except, idiot that I am, I’d made sure he knew that the only place that knowledge lived, it was in my head. Dig that out, and he’d have nothing to worry about.
“You didn’t have to,” I added. “They were never going to get that log moved.”
He just stared at me. Evaluating me, it felt like. How long had it been since anyone attempted conversation with him, I wonder now? If he had spoken, if he could, what would he have even said, after so long? Would he have asked why a die-hard cyclist was defending those who would do violence to cyclists?
Looking back, my guess is that he couldn’t speak at all. Not without showing me his teeth.
“I didn’t invite you in here,” I said to him, my bulk—with the comforter—filling the doorway.
To show how little threat I was, he turned away from me, studying his glasses again. Then raising them, to inhale their scent.
“I didn’t wear them,” I said. “Not really.”
What he was smelling, it was my sweat on the band, from when they’d been around my neck. From when I’d been chasing him.
In a moment’s association, then, I knew that that was how he’d found me here on the third floor of an apartment building miles away from the last place I’d seen him.
He’d picked my scent out of all the smells of the city. Out of all the thousands of other bodies out after dark. He’d known me through the rain.
I swallowed, the sound of it crashing in my ears.
He’d come here because I’d seen him. He’d come here because he couldn’t be seen.
“You don’t ride in the sun, do you,” I said. It wasn’t really a question. I nodded down to the glasses he was still considering. “And the stores are only open in the daytime. So you can’t—you can’t update your gear.”
I could tell by the new stillness about him that he heard me, but he didn’t look up.
“Take them,” I said.
Slowly, by labored degrees, he looked over to me.
“Mine,” I said. “Take them. You need them.”
Because it wasn’t in him to leave evidence behind, he hooked his down over his neck like I’d worn them, then settled mine around his head, the continuous lens cocked up on his forehead. When he lowered them, the dents left from the elastic’s pull didn’t fill with red color.
But I’d known that wasn’t going to happen.
“You’re fast,” I said to him. “I used to be fast.”
He looked up to me for what I knew was the last time. I knew it was the last because there was a grin spreading across his face. No, not a grin. A sneer.
What he was saying was that he was fast. The fastest.
And he didn’t need lungs.
And he slept—where he slept, it was probably burrowed into a hole somewhere up the canyon. Under a rock ledge, in a cave only him and the marmots and the chipmunks knew about, and whatever beetles and grubs can live in gaspy thin air, without the sun.
The moment his grin flashed into a smile, I saw the dirty yellow sharpness past his lips and I took an involuntary step back.
That was all it took to spook him.
He moved like quicksilver over the couch, past the rattan stools, and onto the balcony. I rushed over after him, to see him silently touching down, or swimming through the night air, but he was already gone.
I should have expected nothing less.
Three nights later, the waters receded from the bike path.
I hadn’t been riding to and from work.
Doreen had called, actually. Just to talk.
I told her to swing by the restaurant soon, that I’d make her favorite, like old times. Her breath hitched a bit over that.
Four years, that’s a long time. For me too.
“And you need to be careful,” she said, when we were both signing off awkwardly—awkward because we’d been saying the same thing at the end of every call for so long. What were we supposed to say now?
“Careful?” I said.
“Those two kids who died,” she said.
“They weren’t riding,” I told her.
“Just be careful.”
I promised her I would and we somehow broke the connection.
It was my night off.
What she’d said, though. It was a challenge, wasn’t it?
You only have to be careful when you think something can really happen to you. When you’re twenty, twenty-five, nothing in the world can touch you.
To prove that still applied to me, I unclamped my bike from the rack, checked the tire pressure front and back, then nodded to myself about this, trucked us downstairs, to the sidewalk that led to the path that ran alongside the creek, up the canyon if I followed that far.
It was one, two in the morning. Late enough that the hand-in-hand lovers would be bedded down someplace secret. Late enough that all the smokers who’d promised they’d quit weren’t out for one last drag.
Just me and the creatures of the night.
My headlight only stabbed fifteen, twenty feet into the darkness.
To show I could, that I still had those legs, I pumped hard for the black space of the mountains. I knew better than to try to make the whole climb. But even a little would prove something.
I made it the same two miles, not pushing hard, just steady climbing, before I wheeled around, rode gravity back to town.
Two homeless men, tuned to nature better than the usual baby stroller crowd, stepped away from each other to let me slip between them at thirty miles per hour. I nodded thanks, but it’s always an empty gesture. You’re going too fast for it to register, and you can’t ever check back to see if they even saw your gratitude.
Empty gestures are what make the world go round, though.
I swooped under two, three bridges, pedaling though I didn’t really need to. There was still silt on the concrete. It crunched under my tires like sugar granules.
“Careful,” I said again, to myself. Just retasting the word. Mining into it for what Doreen had really been trying to get across.
I looked down, shut my eyes—I was on a straightaway, the one that tunneled through the next quarter mile or so of trees—watching my top tube coast back and forth instead of doing the first thing Coach always said: keeping my eyes on the line I was taking.
My headlight was what saved me from myself.
A piece of driftwood, obviously dragged up onto the path.
Doing it without thinking—it was years too late to stop—I bunny hopped the wood. When you’re clipped in and your bike goes eleven pounds, you can do this.
I came down with both tires at once, like’s proper if you want to keep control, and had to skid immediately, as clearing the next chunk of driftwood would only land me on a third piece. This wasn’t just a symbolic attempt to sabotage the trail. This was set up to hurt any rider who came at it with a head of speed.
I didn’t wipe out, though. It was close, but I knew to cantilever out, ahead, and keep hold of the bike so it didn’t crash into me, send us both spinning into the darkness. It was a once-in-fifty tries dismount, but I landed it.
Breathing hard from the close call, all the profanity I knew welling up in me, I looked back at what almost was, what should have been if I hadn’t just cashed in all my luck for the next ten years, and then I directed my headlight ahead, into the turn, to what other obstacles awaited.
The night cyclists’s white face looked back to me.
His white face and his red mouth and chin. His deep black eyes.
I flinched, but then realized why he wasn’t already at my throat: He was impaled on the seat post of his own bike. He was impaled just like I would be, if I hadn’t reeled all my speed in. But my speed, it had probably only been half of his.
I could see what had happened, too. Like me, he’d bunny hopped over the initial chunk of driftwood but, going faster, his hop had carried him farther, into the next strategically placed driftwood. It had been too much to recover from. He’d probably fallen over sideways, slapped the concrete of the trail hard, but he was going fast enough that instead of splatting into a skid, he bounced, he cartwheeled. And his bike was right there with him, coming apart at its welds, components spinning up into the night sky.
Specifically, his seat.
Only, the clamp hadn’t let go. The seatpost, it had snapped. A carbon-fiber seatpost, it would have splintered, would be showing thread. An old-style aluminum post like he was running, though, it’ll snap off up near the saddle, leave a ragged tube, a hollow spear.
The night cyclist had hit the tree with his back, hard, and an instant later his bike’s seatpost, still extending from the bike itself, had jammed through his sternum.
The blood around that wound, it was black, even at this distance. Not red like the blood at his mouth.
I adjusted the strap across my chest, only just then realized I had my knives with me.
They were clean, like always, but I could tell from the flare of his nostrils that he knew what I was wearing. That this was just one more insult the night had for him. One more stupid thing between him and wherever he was going.
His lips thinned, his teeth baring, but before he could complete his display, he whipped his head over to the left.
I looked too. Nothing. No sound.
And then there was.
Not voices, but brush and branches, parting.
At first I thought it was the two dead boys from the creek, risen. But one of them had shaped sideburns this time, the other a shaved head. Different college kids. What they were carrying was a double-bit axe and a camp hatchet, one of those kinds with a textured hammer on the back side.
And then I realized exactly where we were: at that bend in the creek. It’s why I’d thought they were the dead boys, risen.
These were their friends, then. The other night, they’d tried to muscle that big log up onto the trail. This night, they’d come back with proper tools. To finish the job the night cyclist had interrupted. And to avenge their fallen comrades, as they probably saw it.
When one of them dragged a flashlight up to the night cyclist, I saw that his chin and mouth, their redness wasn’t from himself.
That Double-Bit and Hatchet were still standing, that meant that, a few minutes ago, they’d been three.
I finally tracked down to the night cyclist’s feet, and there was the body that had to be there. The boy who had stepped too close, to taunt.
At which point his two friends had decided to go for tools. For weapons.
And they still hadn’t seen me. Because bicycles, when properly greased, they’re quiet.
I laid my bike down into the grass, unlimbered my roll of knives, spread them out before me.
I didn’t know for sure that Double-Bit and Hatchet could kill the night cyclist like they wanted—they’d still have to get close—but the sun would be coming up eventually, and if he was still pinned to the tree, then they might as well have killed him.
The night cyclist saw me stepping forward but didn’t move a muscle on his face. And, because his eyes showed so little white, even if he was watching me, the two still coming at him wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Double-Bit hit him once, swinging his great axe like a baseball bat into the night cyclist’s shoulder, and then Hatchet came not at the night cyclist, but the bike. He caught it on the bottom bracket with the hammer side, the full force of his impact traveling up the aluminum frame, driving the seat post deeper into flesh.
The night cyclist didn’t even grunt. The black blood just slipped from his mouth, oiled his chin and chest.
He did smile, though.
“What do you have to smile about?” Hatchet screamed, bouncing like a boxer on his toes, wrapping up to swing again.
Double-Bit smiled, seemingly pleased with how the night was falling out, but he caught me in his peripheral vision, too. At the last possible instant. He turned away just fast enough that my paring knife caught him across his open mouth, instead of his temple, like. The blade crossed between his upper and lower teeth, the dagger-point nicking the bunched-up jaw muscle at the back of his mouth on both sides, I was pretty sure.
He reeled back, away from the pain. Into the mouth of the night cyclist, open just as wide as his now was, like a snake about to swallow an egg.
When the night cyclist bit in, some of the blood spattered onto my face. I was wearing my backup clear glasses, but still I flinched, blinked.
This all in a moment cut so thin it was nearly transparent.
In the next moment, Hatchet was turning to me. I flipped the paring knife around and grabbed it by the tip, as if to throw—on the cycling team, we’d fake-lob a water bottle high to someone, then spray them hard with the water bottle we secretly had—and while Hatchet had his arms raise to protect his face, I drove my eight-inch knife up into his belly, digging for his diaphragm. Maybe I got it, I don’t know. He fell back into the night cyclist’s bike, fell back hard enough to crack it to the side, out of the night cyclist, and then the night changed.
The night cyclist slumped down, free of the seatpost, his hair hanging over his face, and inside I was screaming at myself to run, to ride, to leave this place. But Hatchet was already coming for me, holding his guts in with one hand, his weapon high in the other.
He would have got me, too, if the night cyclist hadn’t stabbed a hand forward, dug his sharp fingers into Hatchet’s calf.
Instead of pulling Hatchet’s throat to him, instead of climbing hand over hand up to Hatchet’s throat, he simply pulled that calf to his mouth, and, with Hatchet facedown in the muck now, he drank, and drank deep, his Adam’s apple working up and down with each swallow.
His eyes, they never left mine.
When Hatchet was drained, just his foot spasming, the night cyclist pulled himself over to Double-Bit, drank some more there as well.
And then he rolled over, convulsing in the mud, holding his shoulder.
I could have run then, I know. But I didn’t.
When he could, he stood weakly, looked up the path the way I’d come, then back the other way.
We were alone.
He lurched forward, for his ruined bike.
“No,” I said.
He stopped, studied me, his eyes showing real fatigue for the first time I’d seen.
Shaking my head no, I pointed with my paring knife back to the bike in the grass, the one he could surely smell.
He looked into that tall grass, then back to me.
“Take it already,” I said, and nodded down to his bike. “Need to put this one out of its misery.”
His front wheel was taco’d, one drop was lower than the other, and one of the cranks had bent in under the top chainring.
I couldn’t imagine going that fast through the darkness, alone.
It was a rush just thinking about it.
“What the hell are you?” I said when he took that first step bike-ward, though I knew.
In reply, he took my paring knife forearm in the cold grip of his good arm, pulled the meat of my hand right up to his mouth.
He opened slow. His teeth were impossible.
I had my big knife in my other hand, but it might as well have been someone else’s hand.
He lowered his teeth to my skin, his eyes never leaving mine, and I understood what he was offering.
Eternal youth. Night rides forever. Going faster than I’d ever dreamed.
He was offering to share the night with me.
What had my scent told him, revealed to him? Standing in the living room of my apartment, had he smelled the flavor of Doreen’s last accusations?
I don’t put anything beyond him. Or his kind.
When his teeth brushed my skin, I didn’t jerk back, but I did hear myself say it, my eyes welling up: “No.”
He stopped, looked up into my face.
“I’m going to call her back,” I said, trusting that he knew what I was talking about. Who.
He held my eyes for a moment longer, long enough for me consider exactly what I was giving up here, then he nodded, pushed my arm back to me. He licked his lips, dabbing at a bit of dried blood, and then his eyes snapped up to the path.
“Go,” I told him, and when he walked by I smelled it on him, from him. The decay. If he ever peeled out of his suit, it must smell like the grave for acres in every direction.
Partway to my bike, he scooped up my leather roll, slung it back to me as if it was something any chef could possibly ever just leave lying there. Then he leaned my bike up from the grass, stepped across the top tube then back off, to adjust the seat. Not with a multi-tool, but by pinching the clamp’s bolt between his fingers. When he stood into the pedals, the bike was dialed perfect for him. He clipped in with both feet, just balancing there, getting the feel of this new machine—he liked it, could sense the speed locked in its geometry—and then, without looking back, he powered away, into the silhouette of the Flatirons, which, at night, are the maw of a great cave.
Who he must have passed, who showed up two, three minutes later, it was a pregnant woman and a guy. They were bundled up, both crying over something—I’d never know what.
He’d let them pass, though, the night cyclist.
He surely needed even more blood to rebuild himself, but he needed worse to ride.
I understood. With every part of myself, I understood.
When the couple got to me, the pregnant woman yelped, stumbled back—I was standing in the gore of three more college kids, both my knives dripping, bug-eyed under the clear glasses, my face spattered with blood—and, and this is why I love the world, why I’m going to cook Doreen’s favorite meal tomorrow, just take it to her: The man, scrawny and useless as he was, he stepped in front of her, to stand between her and the monster I looked to be.
“There’s no compulsion to hide the bodies,” I said to them like a joke, spreading my arms as if to showcase my night’s work—words and a gesture that would be on the national news by morning—and then I bowed once and stepped back into the darkness, and came out onto the path a half mile later, walked up onto the plank bridge, my knives cleaned and in their roll again.
The waters were surging beneath me, inexorable, going for miles and miles, for centuries.
I patted the rail’s cold steel and walked on across, home.
“The Night Cyclist” copyright © 2016 by Stephen Graham Jones
Art copyright © 2016 by Keith Negley