Looking back, Sicheng’s first mistake had been applying for the job.
His mathematics degree had done nothing to endear him to potential employers, and while he lived modestly, there was the rent to think of. In desperation, and armed with a commercial driver’s license, he had dialled the number on the newspaper clipping and found himself hired within the hour.
The proprietor of the company introduces himself as Kun. Sicheng meets him outside a small warehouse on the outskirts of town on his first day on the job. From a cursory look, he’s probably only a few years older than Sicheng, but his back is twisted strangely, his left shoulder sloping lower than his right.
“Back issues,” Kun says when he notices Sicheng looking. “I can’t drive like I used to, so.”
Sicheng, feeling a little abashed, nods. “So you hired me.”
Kun smiles. “That’s right. Shall we?”
Sicheng does most of the heavy-lifting, slotting boxes of cargo into the back of the baby blue Ford Kun owns. Kun shows him how to tie down the load with nylon ropes, and once everything is secured, they head for the cab. To Sicheng’s surprise, Kun slides into the driver’s seat.
“I’ll show you the routes I use, and the best rest stops, if you need them,” Kun explains, adjusting the rearview mirror. “How’s your memory?”
Sicheng is good with directions. He tells Kun as much, and he nods approvingly.
“How long is the drive?” Sicheng asks.
“Three hours there. Four back, give or take.”
“Right,” Sicheng hums, “Rush-hour traffic?”
Kun starts the engine. “Something like that.”
The drive does, in fact, take up the allotted three hours. Kun is a good conversationalist, but Sicheng, never a fan of small talk, has little to contribute beyond the usual pleasantries. It isn’t long until they lapse into companionable silence, only speaking when discussing directions and points of interest along their journey.
There aren’t many. The road is flanked by rolling golden cornfields and azure blue skies as far as the eye can see, nary a dwelling or another vehicle in sight. Songs drift out of the Ford’s old radio, sometimes skipping as if they were being played on a scratched record, although it’s likely attributable to the poor reception out here. As picturesque as it all is, it quickly becomes monotonous. The crooning of the divas on the radio begin to blend into one another in a seamless loop, and Sicheng catches himself drifting off more than once in the oppressive heat.
He’s startled awake by the sound of the engine cutting, and a door being slammed. Sicheng unfastens his seatbelt and exits the cab, finding Kun struggling with the ropes holding their cargo together.
“Sorry,” Sicheng takes the ropes from Kun’s hands. “I didn’t mean to — ”
“It’s alright,” Kun says kindly, “The drive is rather boring, isn’t it? But you should keep your wits about you. You never know what’s on these roads.”
Sicheng ducks his head at the gentle reprimand. With Kun’s guidance, he unloads the cargo onto a moveable pallet and brings it into the building they’ve parked in. By the time they’ve collected payment and signed the requisite papers, the skies have begun blooming indigo like a fresh bruise.
When Sicheng offers to drive back, Kun hesitates.
“No, I think — I think I’d better. Really, it’s fine, my back isn’t hurting too much.”
Kun had grimaced while lifting a box earlier. It wouldn’t do any good to subject him to another hours-long drive in his truck, but he seems adamant. Sicheng notices a tension in the line of Kun’s shoulders that hadn’t been there before.
Still, he shrugs, pacifying. “I’m okay if you are.”
Conversation is noticeably absent as they wind their way through the smaller roads leading out of town, night falling around them. Kun does not turn the radio on for this drive. When he lifts a hand up to adjust his glasses, Sicheng notices that the steering wheel is slick with sweat. This, coupled with Kun’s sudden reticence, causes his gut to twist uncomfortably.
Right before the turn into the highway, Kun pulls over by the side of the road. He sits there for a moment, engine idling.
Sicheng doesn’t have to wait for long.
“Earlier you asked if the drive back took longer because of traffic.”
“Yes,” Sicheng says slowly, unsure of where this is going.
“It’s something like that,” Kun shifts in his seat, expression pained. “There will be a hitchhiker along this particular highway. When you see him, you must stop for him, and drive him to where he needs to be. You do not speak to him, you do not touch him, you do not look at him. Just drop him off, and go back the way you came. Understand?”
Sicheng frowns. “Must’? Can’t we just drive by — ”
“No,” Kun snaps, so fiercely that Sicheng flinches. “We cannot.”
Bewildered, Sicheng can only stare. What little is visible from Kun’s expression in the weak beam of the headlights is hard and uncompromising.
Kun breaks the silence first. “I need to know if you understand, otherwise I’m afraid I’m going to have to find someone else.”
As unnerving as it is, this does not dissuade Sicheng. He nods his head once, jerkily.
The change in Kun is immediate — he sags against his seat, exhaling quietly. “Good.”
Tires shift from dirt to asphalt as the Ford swings out onto the highway. Sicheng hadn’t realised how badly lit it would be — the streetlights are spaced far apart, no moon or stars to offer relief, and the Ford’s headlights only illuminate perhaps fifty feet of the stretch ahead. The rest of their surroundings are shrouded in shadows, unfathomable in their depth.
Unease pricks at the corners of Sicheng’s mind as he turns over Kun’s words. There had only been the odd car or two on their way up, and it’s beyond belief that there would be anyone walking these roads, especially at this late hour. The nearest settlement around was their own — where would someone come from, or go, if not these two towns? Why the empathic urging that they make no contact with this hitchhiker? Sicheng glances over at Kun several times during the ride, burning with curiosity, but Kun keeps his unblinking gaze firmly fixed on the road ahead.
The ride is uneventful for the next two hours, and it’s only when they take a left, following the curve of the road, that he sees it: a lone figure under one of the rare streetlights.
As they draw closer, Sicheng sees that it’s a man, dressed in a suit too fine for these parts. His hair is long, falling in curtains to frame his face, features sharp and feline-like. He leans against the pole of the streetlight, hand outstretched to flag them down, bored. Expectant.
Kun’s warning ghosts the space between them: “Remember what I said.”
The Ford rolls to a stop. The rear passenger door opens.
“Late tonight, aren’t we?”
The hitchhiker’s voice has a somewhat nasal quality to it, words rolling over each other in disapproval. Kun says nothing.
There’s shuffling as the stranger settles in, and then a pregnant pause. There’s clear interest when the man next speaks. “Oh. He’s new.”
The back of Sicheng’s neck prickles.
“The name’s Ten,” the hitchhiker offers. “What’s yours, darling?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Kun give an infinitesimal shake of his head. It feels strange, to blatantly ignore someone making polite small talk with you, but Sicheng obediently trains his eyes forward and remains quiet.
Ten doesn’t seem too bothered by his lack of response, merely pulling his door shut. “Well, gentlemen. Let’s get going, shall we?”
Ten asks Kun to take a right soon after they pull away, into a path nestled between cornfields that Sicheng hadn’t noticed earlier. He must have been asleep at the time, or not paying attention. It’s a narrow thing, barely large enough for the Ford to pass through, corn scraping against the windows.
The minutes crawl by. The silence is palpable, broken intermittently by Ten’s genial attempts to begin conversation, topics ranging from the weather to politics. In order to tune Ten out, Sicheng busies himself with watching the path unfold ahead of them. It seems to work, for Ten is soon reduced to white noise, and Sicheng almost forgets that he’s there.
Maybe that’s what allows him to catch him out.
“You’re such a fucking disappointment, aren’t you.”
Sicheng wrenches his eyes from the path. “Wh — ”
It’s the vice-like grip on his arm that stops him. Sicheng looks down, and sees that the knuckles of Kun’s hand have gone white. So have the ones clutching the steering wheel.
His heart pounds wildly. He can’t help himself — his eyes flick upwards. In the rearview mirror, Ten looks back, his eyes glittering with stars pulled from the sky. He’s pleased, Sicheng realises.
“Tell me.” It’s innocuous, curious, but something about it screams warning. Danger. “Do you think you’ll amount to anything at all?”
They stare at each other for a beat before Sicheng forces himself to look down. His fists are clenched in his lap.
“Left,” Ten says, and Kun twists the wheel.
It takes active concentration to hold his tongue for the remainder of the trip, especially when Ten reverts to more palatable topics. When they drop Ten off in a clearing amongst the cornfields, Sicheng is still shaking from the effort of it.
The Ford retraces its earlier route. Left. Right. Left again.
Kun glances at him once they return to the highway. “Do you get it now?”
Sicheng thinks he does.
Sicheng isn’t sure when he decides to blow past him, just that it happens. He barely registers the way his foot leans heavily on the pedal, or the wind whipping through the windows. He doesn’t look back, instead visualising himself speeding away as Ten’s silhouette grows smaller in the mirror.
Maybe he should have double-checked.
“Right,” a voice says from behind him, and Sicheng slams the brakes.
Ten is in the same suit as the last time, draped over half of the backseat with one ankle crossed over his knee. He wears the same bland, pleasant expression the night they first met.
Sicheng gapes at Ten’s reflection. This is impossible. Earlier, he had made the deliberate choice of not slowing down. Of leaving Ten behind in the dust.
“Are you alright?” he hears Ten say, very much present behind him.
Except — had he? A wisp of a memory niggles at the back of his mind, and Sicheng reaches out to grasp it: his foot on the brake, not pedal. Ten climbing in. A throwaway observation that the full moon is two days ahead of its cycle.
Sicheng cranes his neck to look out the window. A full moon.
He bites down on his lip and screws his eyes shut. Inhales. Tries to quell his panic.
Ten’s reflection stares back at him when his eyes blink open, and Sicheng resists the urge to turn around. His features are pulled into a poor imitation of concern; his eyes, once again, are gleaming.
“Baby,” Ten purrs. Sicheng’s skin crawls. “Did I scare you?”
Sicheng tears his eyes away. With fumbling hands betraying his emotions, he re-starts the engine and veers right. Ten, thankfully, takes the hint, only speaking to direct Sicheng through the cornfield maze. This time, he chooses to alight on the path itself.
“I apologise if I made you uncomfortable before.” There’s a hint of remorse in his voice, and Sicheng is almost persuaded by it. “But you must understand — I’ve been so lonely. Do you know how that feels?”
Sicheng stares at his dashboard. He thinks of his parents, long dead and gone, ashes scattered to the winds. Of his framed degree, gathering dust on a shelf. Of a life endlessly shuttling between two rural towns, with no one but a strange hitchhiker he’s forbidden from speaking to for company.
Ten’s voice is plaintive, barely audible above the growl of the engine. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
Sicheng was bound to slip up sooner or later. He’d never been the most consistent student, and the mutism he’s had to maintain around Ten required constant vigilance when his mind, by then exhausted from hours on the road, much preferred to wander.
The night starts off like always — Ten boarding the Ford, chattering away in the backseat, and then a right turn into the fields. It’s always a right turn, Sicheng notices, though not necessarily at the same place. Tonight, Ten has him drive down half of the highway before he veers off-course. Sicheng’s mind has started to slip away from him once again, chasing stray thoughts, when Ten sneezes.
“Bless you,” Sicheng says, and then he realises what he’s done.
“He speaks!” Ten sounds delighted. “You wouldn’t happen to have a handkerchief, would you?”
There’s one in his breast pocket. Sicheng briefly considers feigning ignorance when he feels a breath at his throat, and then Ten is reaching over the driver’s seat and around his shoulder. Sicheng can only sit, paralysed, as the handkerchief is deftly plucked from his pocket, Ten’s hand cold through the thin fabric of his shirt. When Ten withdraws his hand, his fingers brush against his collarbone, sending sparks.
Ten settles back in his seat, clutching the cloth to his face. “Don’t look so distressed,” he consoles. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You can speak to me.”
“But Kun said…”
“Kun? Please,” Ten snorts. “If I wanted to harm you, don’t you think I would have done so by now?”
He has a point. Perhaps Kun’s paranoia was unfounded. All this time, and despite the seclusion offered by acres of corn, Ten has never expressed ill-intent towards them. He is a peculiar creature, yes, and Sicheng often wonders where Ten goes after leaving the Ford, but surely that is no basis for giving him the cold shoulder.
Ten looks at him beseechingly. He reminds Sicheng of a stray, begging for scraps. “It’s terribly lonely out here. Talk to me.”
“About what,” Sicheng mumbles back. He's already dug himself into a hole — what's a little deeper?
When Ten smiles, it’s with all his teeth. “For starters, why don’t you tell me your name?”
It’s guilt and a healthy dose of anxiety that spur Sicheng to look for Kun the next morning. When he finds him in the back of the warehouse, he cuts to the chase.
“I accidentally spoke to Ten,” he confesses.
Kun looks up. “Ten?”
Sicheng licks his lips. “Yes. The hitchhiker.”
Kun tilts his head, and his next words drench Sicheng like freezing water.
Kun looks befuddled. Sicheng imagines he looks the same. “The… man by the roadside.” He grips the back of a chair, nails digging into wood. “You said we had to ferry him, that there was no option of refusing. You told me not to speak to him under any circumstances.”
Kun rises, and Sicheng can’t help the noise of surprise that escapes him. Gone is his twisted form. His spine is ramrod straight, shoulders even and broad. Like this, Kun is nearly as tall as Sicheng.
“There are no hitchhikers around these parts,” Kun states authoritatively. “Everyone has a vehicle that gets them where they need to be. You haven’t been letting strangers into the Ford, have you?”
This must be some sort of sick joke. Sicheng searches Kun’s face, waits for the mask to crack. But Kun is looking at him reproachfully, his face betraying no signs that he’s kidding around, and he realises with a start — Kun truly doesn’t remember Ten.
“No, sir.” Sicheng feels numb. “I — excuse me. I don’t know what I was saying.”
The smile on Kun’s face is stiff, as if held up with puppet strings. “Of course you don’t.”
Sicheng feels like he’s breathing in syrup, thick and sweet. So when Ten asks him directly, playfully, whether he’d ever wondered where he went each night, whether he was interested at all, the answer comes easily.
“I am,” he admits. "Interested."
Ten turns to him with hooded eyes. He’s almost glowing, and Sicheng wishes he had paid more attention to him before. “Would you like me to show you?”
A tunnel is carved into the earth, the path leading to it flanked by stalks of corn waving in a non-existent breeze. Logically, Sicheng knows there shouldn’t be any tunnels here, out in land meant for agriculture. It should be impossible.
He’s quickly finding that that word means nothing when it comes to Ten.
“You live in there.”
“Down there,” Ten corrects. “Will you take me home?”
Is this what it’s like, heading into the belly of the beast? Sicheng stares at the tunnel, yawning wide open and pitch-dark. He’s dimly aware that if he goes, there’s a real possibility that he won’t come back. Ten is technically offering him a choice, but in truth they both know it’s an illusion. That there is nothing here for Sicheng.
Maybe Sicheng has made his peace with it. Maybe he was damned the moment he laid eyes on Ten.
“Come, Sicheng.” Ten leans forward to mouth at his jaw. His breath ghosts across the shell of his ear, raising goosebumps. “Let’s go home.”
Sicheng moves as if he were molasses. His limbs are heavy, a fog settling around him. Still, his hand finds the gearstick. His foot finds the pedal.
The tunnel swallows them whole.