Timothy Heathcliff Edwards stared forward through the grey morning air of Beijing. He felt that he was on the verge of some truly monumental and important realization. This was not a new feeling for Tim by any means, but always in the past, moments like this had been interrupted by...no, he did not want to think about that. Surely things would be different here. He must concentrate on the moment. He tried to relax and let his thoughts free flow back toward that moment of realization. He could feel something important lying there just under the surface of his conscious thoughts. Relax. Let it come. Almost there...
BANG. Someone walked headlong into him with enough force that it sent him sprawling forward onto the carpeted floor of the airport.
"Oh, I’m terribly sorry. We didn’t see you there."
Lying on the floor with his face pressed into the carpet listening to the small thunder of rolling luggage and smelling the overpowering scent of rug shampoo, he did at last have a realization: things were not going to be different.
Timothy, like so many people before him, was a victim of bell curves. It is a popularly held misconception that the shorter you are the more likely it is that someone will accidentally bump into you. New research, however, has discovered that the underlying equation is in fact a bell-shaped probability curve leaving extremely short people along with extremely tall people among the most noticed persons on the planet.
Timothy was neither very tall nor very short. In fact, Timothy was one of those unfortunate persons whose height was exactly at the center point of the curve. These people most often lead anxious, bruised lives, and Timothy was no exception.
Slowly he lifted his head up from the floor and looked to see who it was that had blundered into his personal space this time. He opened his eyes and saw a skateboard hurtling directly towards him.
Several things then happened at once. His eyes froze in shock for a microsecond before sending a frantic message to the brain which responded a microsecond later with something to the effect of: "What the hell are you talking about? There can’t possibly be a skateboard coming towards us." The eyes replied that there bloody well was a skateboard out there, and something better be done about it. The brain told the eyes that if they were so concerned about it why didn’t they do something to help the situation instead of just complaining all the time. At this point the eyes did the only thing they knew how to do in a danger situation - that is to say - they shut themselves as fast as they could.
"Um...are you all right?"
Tim opened his eyes again. The skateboard was stopped two inches from his face. Standing with one foot on the skateboard and one foot planted firmly on the floor was a Japanese girl of about his own age. He knew that she was Japanese because of the child-sized black T-shirt she was wearing that read "100% Nihonjin" and, in slightly smaller letters, "That’s Japanese, Baby!" across it in glitter. Her hair was long and black except for the tips, which had been dyed red in an inch-long band all the way around. She had a petite frame and a huge smile that stretched from ear to ear.
What happened next was a process so complex that many scientists believe it to be impossible to describe using purely scientific terms. All we can really say is that there was a massive firing of neurons within Timothy’s brain at the same time that his heart began to pound with a slow intensity it normally reserved for near-death experiences and performances by his favorite band, Slippery Nomenclature.
[It is interesting to note that at this exact moment an astronomer in New Mexico named Jonathan Winters reported that he actually saw two stars cross themselves and mouth the words "God help us," before returning to their normal activities as the centers of solar systems. Not surprisingly, this observation failed to make international news, and this was due both to the unbelievable nature of the report itself and to the fact that its originator was known by many as Johnny "Pour Me Another One" Winters.]
All Timothy knew was that the noise of the rolling luggage and the smell of carpet fumes had disappeared along with every thing in sight except her smile...which slowly turned into a look of puzzlement as he continued to stare at her with is mouth hanging open.
"Um, hello? Konnichi wa? Ni hao? Bon Jour?"
"Oh, uh, hello," he said shaking his head to clear it. [No one is quite sure why we do this, or whether it began before or after the invention of the etch-a-sketch.]
"I saw that family knock you over with their luggage. They just walked right into you. It’s like they didn’t even see you. Are you okay?"
"Don’t worry, it happens to me all the time," he said.
"Well that’s a strange thing to say," she said, giving him an odd look.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if that sort of thing happened to me all the time, I’d worry. Is it nice there on the floor?"
"Oh, uh, well its-"
"I only ask," she continued, "because you’ve been there for a fairly long time, and I think the security people are starting to get nervous." He followed her glance a little way off where two bulky looking Chinese men in green and red military uniforms were carefully watching him. He grinned weakly at them, but their expressions only grew more stern.
Dropping his gaze, he rolled slowly upward to a standing position. It was a coolly graceful move that hinted at a hidden physical prowess, or so he hoped. In fact, Timothy looked less like a deadly Kung Fu master and more like someone with lower back problems.
"I can fix that for you - I studied Shiatsu massage once."
"What?" he said.
"Oh, never mind. So where are you headed?" she asked, popping her skateboard up into her hand with a practiced foot movement.
"I’m going to Beijing Foreign Language School to study Chinese."
"Really?" she said, devastating Timothy with another one of her smiles. "That’s where I’m headed as well! My name is Keiko. Nice to meet you."
"Watashi no namae wa Timothy desu." My name is Timothy, he said in Japanese.
"Impressive, who else can you do?"
"Uh...did you mean to say ‘what’ or what?"
"That’s what I thought. Well, I can say hello in over twenty languages, but I can only really get around in about three," he said, and, for the first time, a look of easy confidence settled on his face. Keiko’s smile grew warmer.
At that moment, the parts of Timothy’s mind not occupied with staring at Keiko (a fraction so small, it might as well be zero) heard a sound that called up images of stampedes in old John Wayne movies.
"Hello? Are you with S.E.I.?" called a voice. Approaching from the direction they were headed, was a tiny Chinese woman waving a big protest era sign that read, "Student Exchange International!" Behind her marched another woman with a clipboard and a snaking line of tired students pulling a great chain of precariously balanced rolling luggage.
"Yes, we both are," shouted back Keiko. The woman’s face lit up with relief. She stopped suddenly and spun around to speak with her assistant. Stylish black hair bobbed up and down, as the two conferred. The assistant pulled out two sheets of paper with photos attached to them from a stack on her clipboard. Behind her, many of the students had already turned their luggage into makeshift recliners. She glanced at them, then turned around anxiously.
"Please hurry, we are all very tired."
Keiko and Timothy each signed a sheet on the clipboard, picked up an information packet, and joined the chain of sleeping students and stampeding luggage.
"You two were the last on our list. We feared you might be lost," said the assistant, a slightly younger looking Chinese woman. She wore thick glasses that made her eyes appear much larger than they were. At least, that is what Timothy hoped he was seeing. In a sudden and entirely incorrect flash of intuition, Timothy imagined a tragic story of a young woman with eyes that didn’t work, desperately hoping for a transplant, but because of her low social status, left waiting endlessly until one day, Igor Lee, a giant man who was the son of a Chinese mother and a Transylvania immigrant died with the organ donor box checked on his license. Did they have organ donors here in China? Timothy didn’t know, but he felt an instant sympathy for this young assistant who had obviously suffered so much for the mere gift of sight.
"My name is Teacher Lee, and this is Teacher Xiang. Please, take your place here at the head of the student body," said the woman in charge, and this last comment was enough to jar Timothy back into a state of confused immobility. Had they been nominated for some sort of organizational office? Perhaps this was how student government worked in China. Considering the government’s habit of making a quick end of anyone that had the effrontery to imply that another authority might exist besides its own, there probably wouldn’t be people lining up for the position. Was this some sort of subtle threat from their teachers? Don’t be late to classes, or you might get elected! Timothy’s stomach let out an uneasy rumble, and his face became a worried frown.
"Are you alright?" asked Keiko.
"I’ll be fine," said Timothy. "Tell me, what exactly did she mean by ‘head of the student body?’"
Keiko looked behind them at the line of other students rolling along, two abreast.
"I think it’s a weird literal translation. We’re like one of those parades at Chinese new year, when they make a big dragon with some red cloth and a lot of people. They’re the body and we’re the head."
"Oh!" said Timothy with relief. The knot in his stomach stopped tightening and settled into its more normal state of moderate discomfort. He glanced back behind them. "We don’t look much like a dragon in my opinion. More like a felled tree. Everyone is asleep, and they’re just following the feet of the person in front of them."
"You’re right," said Keiko. A devilish grin crept across her face. "Let’s see if we can wake this dragon." Reaching out, she took Timothy’s hand in her own and turned them both at a slight angle toward the wall. Four steps later, just as they were about to run into it, she turned back at a diagonal angle towards the other wall, still moving more or less in the direction that the teachers were leading them. Behind them, the students were dazedly following their exact footsteps, creating a bend in the line. Keiko continued her pattern, speeding up her steps as well to keep from falling behind their teachers. The effect was that the students now found themselves walking in a sort of undulating snake-like parade through the hallway. Some of them had even started to wake up and were grinning as they swerved from wall to wall. Around them, people were staring. Wives tapped their husbands on the shoulder and pointed at the line of foreigners moving snake-like through the airport.
"See how they stare at us, Teacher Xiang?" said Teacher Lee. "People far and wide have heard of the honor and pride of the Beijing Foreign Language School. Our diligence and sacrifice are finally bringing us the respect we deserve!" The two teachers hoisted their school banners a little higher as they walked out through the automatic doors and into daylight.
posted by D @ 6:28 PM
I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.
If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at podiobooks.com.
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