It was barely raining when Zhang Yuan left the exam hall but by the time he had biked downtown he was beginning to regret his choices in life. Not the choice to take the mock exam; more the one that had to do with neglecting to check the weather before heading out that morning. He was wearing an open, light blue button up shirt over his white T-shirt though it did little to keep him dry.
But it wasn’t all bad. It was Spring and the night was warm. As long as he got home quick and had a shower then warmed up in bed, he’d be fine.
The traffic around Zhang Yuan and his little bike swarmed around impatiently in that way only rainy weather can get people. More than once he had to swerve suddenly to compensate for the lackadaisical driving of a fellow road user.
The rain was coming down rather determinedly now and it was getting a little hard for Zhang Yuan to make out which blurs of light and colour ahead were cars and pedestrians, which were their reflections on the slick black road, and which were just the ginkgo trees that lined the road.
A large van groaned past him, heaping a load of water up on him. Zhang Yuan spluttered and wiped haphazardly at his face, swerving a little zig zag in his lane. The taxi next to him honked its horn.
It’s okay. I’m was nearly home, he told himself silently. Just two more turns and—
“Is it really necessary for you to file that report? You do realise that—”
Jing Ran methodically turned the wheel of his car, turning it exactly as far as it needed to go, not a bit more, not a bit less. He pressed lightly on the gas and edged his car up to prescribed speed. A lorry bound ahead of him and his eyes narrowed. That van was speeding!
Jing Ran burned internally for a moment at the flagrant breaking of the law then drew his mouth in a straight line and attempted to find his way back to the conversation coming over his earpiece.
“We’d have to get everything re-approved! And that’s not even taking the project timeline into account…”
“Director Li,” Jing Ran interrupted. “I looked through the detailed plans. They do not add up. Your team did a subpar job which needs to be rectified.”
Jing Ran’s mind began to wander again as the project’s sub director began a whole new book of justifications.
A car from somewhere up front honked loudly and Jing Ran couldn’t help sighing. What was the point in venting anger with a loud sound? Does it really make you feel better?
Suddenly a light blue blur shot out of Jing Ran’s blind spot and—
Zhang Yuan felt strange as he woke. Some parts of him were cold as ice while others felt hot. He cracked open an eye and realised he was being held by someone.
“Hey, are you awake? Can you hear me?”
The voice sounded urgent and Zhang Yuan worked hard to obey, opening both eyes. Above him was the worried face of a man. The man waved one of his hands in front of Zhang Yuan’s face.
“Can you see?”
Zhang Yuan nodded and sat up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said though he knew his voice sounded like he wasn’t. “Really,” he added.
The man pursed his lips then got up off the ground. He offered Zhang Yuan a hand. “You should still go to the hospital.”
Zhang Yuan glanced around as he got up and quickly put two and two together. He’d had a traffic accident. He stamped his feet and flexed his arms. They felt fine, though he couldn’t say the same for his bike.
A hand took him by the elbow.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said the stranger as he manoeuvred Zhang Yuan to the passenger seat of what was presumably the man’s SUV.
“It’s alright. I feel fine. You don’t have to—” Zhang Yuan began to say but was cut off by the car door being slammed shut. In those few moments he’d somehow ended up sitting in the car. Wait, was he being kidnapped?
There was another thump and Zhang Yuan glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the stranger putting his bike into the boot of the car.
Did kidnappers usually bring their victim’s bikes?
There was the sound of footsteps then the driver’s door opened and the man got in.
“The nearest hospital is only a kilometre away,” he said. “Concussions are a serious matter.”
Zhang Yuan nodded dumbly.
But what should have been a quick, sub five minute drive became a much longer ordeal as the rain continued to bucket down. So now that he had the time, Zhang Yuan decided to sneak a glance at the man driving. He looked to be in his late twenties though there was a timeless elegance to both his suit and his mannerisms. His hair was a little longer than usual, which Zhang Yuan found rather appealing, and tied back in a small ponytail.
He’s really handsome, Zhang Yuan found himself thinking.
“There’s a towel in the backseat,” the man said while still looking ahead through the windshield.
“Oh.” Zhang Yuan twisted to look behind his seat and indeed there was a towel. He dragged it to the front and did what he could to dry himself.
“I... meant for the seat.”
Zhang Yuan glanced over at Jing Ran, then at the cloth in his hand. He flushed then wiped at the seat before sliding the towel under himself.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, he thought to himself. Lesson learned.
The light ahead switched to red and Jing Ran brought the car to a measured stop. Then he reached over and popped open the glove compartment of the passenger seat. He pulled something out and dropped it on Zhang Yuan’s lap.
It was a sealed plastic bag with a soft hand towel inside.
“Use that for yourself.”
Book covers indeed.
Jing Ran stared at the pale pink wall. The pale pink wall paid him no attention. To his left an old woman with a drip fastened to her arm scolded an equally old man, gesturing wildly at every accusation. To Jing Ran’s right a small child rubbed pencils on a colouring book.
Jing Ran wasn’t sure if it was the way the child seem to have no regard for the boundary lines of the illustration that bothered him more or the way the child bit and sucked at each pencil then put it down on the chair, then picked up another pencil and did the same thing. He suppressed a shudder.
A door clicked open ahead and Jing Ran looked up to see the Bicycle Boy coming out of one of the appointment rooms. The nurse said a few words to him then pointed down the hall. He thanked her then started to thread his way through the chairs of the waiting area toward Jing Ran while the nurse called the next patient.
The old cranky woman next to Jing Ran underwent a personality changed and became all smiles as the nurse came over to help her up. After she left, the old man and Jing Ran both let out a sigh of relief.
Jing Ran rose and met the Bicycle Boy half way.
“How is it?”
The boy smiled wildly. “Fine! The doctor said there’s nothing wrong.”
Jing Ran nodded. “Good. Radiology next.” He looked over at the directory by the elevators.
“I’m— I’m really fine. I don’t need to…”
Jing Ran turned back to the boy and fixed him with a hard stare. “If you’re worried about the bill, don’t be. I’m paying for it.”
The boy squirmed. “It’s not the cost…”
“Good.” Before the boy could outline his argument, Jing Ran took his elbow and steered him toward the set of elevators. The boy finally seemed to realise resistance was futile and fell silent as they waited. Jing Ran silently evaluated the boy and dropped his hand from his elbow. He seemed to be the rather obedient sort.
“Were you on your way home?” Jing Ran asked as the metal doors of the elevator finally slid apart.
The boy glanced at Jing Ran, seemingly surprised at the question. Did he phrase his question wrongly? Jing Ran quickly reran the last few seconds in his mind as they got into the lift.
“Yeah, I live near where we…met,” the boy said.
“School?” No, that really was a stupid question. It was the weekend.
The boy smiled and shook his head. “Kind of,” he said. “I take the Gaokao this year so I was doing a practice exam.”
Jing Ran nodded and appeared to understand but inside he was still as confused. Wasn’t it still the beginning of the school year? Why was he preparing so early? Did all students do this? Jing Ran thought back to his high school years but he couldn’t remember putting in this much effort. Is this boy a bad student who needs to catch up?
The elevator’s speakers let out a tired chime and the doors slid open again. Time for radiology.
Zhang Yuan tried hard not to squirm as he and the strange man sat waiting for Zhang Yuan’s turn to get his arm x-rayed. It was the only bit of him that the doctor had said might have some further injuries, something Zhang Yuan really really wish she hadn’t said.
Zhang Yuan had no fear of hospitals, or of blood, or of germs. What he did have was a strong aversion to being the centre of attention, or worse, being fussed over.
He glanced beside him where the strange man was sitting. He seemed confident and didn’t seem to have any issues with attention. Perhaps it was just an age thing.
Suddenly the man shifted and reached into the inner pocket of his jacket. Zhang Yuan could just make out a soft buzzing sound. The man took out his phone, tapped at the screen, then grimaced. Zhang Yuan couldn’t see the screen from where he sat nor did he think it appropriate to lean over to see but he had a feeling he knew what it was about.
“Is it work?” Zhang Yuan asked.
The man nodded, his eyes quickly skimming over whatever it was that had just been sent to him. Zhang Yuan weighed his odds then decided to go ahead.
“It’s alright if you need to go,” Zhang Yuan said with a smile. “I’ll be fine here.”
The man looked up from his phone. His face had skeptical written all over it. In just the short amount of time they’d known each other it appeared he had already learned it best to not take Zhang Yuan’s words at face value.
“You promise to get the x-ray done?” the man asked, his voice also skeptical.
Zhang Yuan nodded earnestly. He had absolutely zero intention to but what were the chances he’d see this man again in the future or if he would even remember him even if he did.
The man’s eyes flicked back and forth, almost as he were gauging Zhang Yuan’s truthfulness from his eyes.
“Add me on WeChat,” the man finally said.
Zhang Yuan’s ammenable expression became rigid. The man raised an eyebrow. Zhang Yuan looked away, trying to hide his grimace, then pulled out his own phone.
QR code scanned.
Friend request accepted.
Zhang Yuan was now obligated to get the x-ray.
Seemingly satisfied that Zhang Yuan would follow the correct health advice, the man stood. “I’ll leave your bicycle by the downstairs reception, though it might need to be repaired.” He thought a moment, then reached into his trouser pocket. “If it does, you can pawn this to pay for it.”
The man held out a small box and Zhang Yuan took it automatically. And with that, the man strode away.
Zhang Yuan waited until the man’s receeding outline truly disappeared then leaned back on the hard plastic seat, sighing deeply. He’d totally forgotten about his bicycle. Repairing a bicycle was one of those hidden danger expenses that could completely bankrupt a student if they went about it wrong. Sometimes it was even cheaper to just get a new one.
Zhang Yuan turned the box over in his hand. It was on the small side, really small, like one of those boxes his mother kept her nice earrings in. It was light too. Why would that man have been carrying earrings around with him? Were they a gift? An image of the man wearing metal stud earrings came to mind but Zhang Yuan quickly shoved it away before he started blushing in the waiting area of a hospital.
Wanting the mystery solved, Zhang Yuan popped open the box.
The diamond ring glittered back at him.
Zhang Yuan’s head jolted up. He looked around. A few metres away a nurse stood in the open doorway of one of the rooms. “This way. The doctor can see you now,” she said.
Zhang Yuan nodded dumbly and closed the engagement ring box.