All year I avoided the square where Sam got knocked down. But that winter I found myself making pilgrimages to the shrine someone made up. The ghost bike was painted white and chained to a pole.
It was the winter I started to start early. I got pretty good at riding drunk. Pavement glittered and winked at me, sick with black ice. I ate sweet exhaust, crushed dinosaur bones. Nothing could touch me on these salt roads. Grit and ice clung to my face. I looked like any street I was rolling on.
One day under that carbon atmosphere I finished a delivery—five stars, no tip—and went to Sam’s bike. I was feeling good. Earlier I got IDed at Liquor Planet though it was my third time there today. It made me feel faceless.
There used to be a sign and there used to be flowers, but the world had a way of taking things away. These days, people were always leaving trash on Sam’s shrine. Sam would have found it funny—people littering on the shrine memorializing where he was run over by a garbage truck. He loved all the weird little circles of the world. But it made me sick.
There was no litter on his ghost bike that day. But there was a young man in the saddle. He looked familiar. Sam, I thought, but of course it wasn’t. The young man wore a vintage army jacket and pretended to peddle while someone filmed.
I rolled the red light. A cab stopped short, horn blaring.
“Look, I’m Lance Armstrong,” the man in the vintage army jacket said, laughing with his friends.
Even I barely saw me coming. I hauled him off Sam’s bike, and we fell into the black crust of gutter snow. An elbow filled my mouth with the hot taste of copper. I was punching anything I could lay hands on. A blow to the helmet, felt it crack. Stars and little birds flying around. It was all happening so fast, and then it was over.
Armstrong’s friends peeled me off him. They pushed me away, calling me an asshole, calling me a drunk, calling me a psychopath, calling out “WorldStar.” My head echoed. I couldn’t think of anything to call them back.
“We should call the cops,” one said, stammering. He dropped his phone as he took it out of his pocket. “Bet he escaped from the mental hospital.”
“Or the zoo,” another guy said. He frantically rubbed white sneakers. Blood was streaking.
“That’s not what tonight is about,” Armstrong said. “Goddammit. We’re supposed to be getting trashed, not cleaning up the city. Let’s get out of here.”
I shucked off the bloody tube scarf and watched them go, shaking. That’s when it clicked—Armstrong was a regular, one of the college guys that always got Chipotle delivered to the row of old brick houses on Seminary Hill.
I stomped around Sam’s bike, feeling deflated. I felt I had to explain myself, explain how the world was. But he knew. Probably better than me. I adjusted how the bike leaned against the pole. Tried to make it seem like a real memorial, not one more abandoned thing in a city full of them. There were several ghost bikes around town, appearing overnight after a messenger was killed. I didn’t notice them until I started riding. Then I started seeing them everywhere.
The old-school messengers said there was a ghost bike for everyone.
I rolled around, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another delivery. I couldn’t show up at a customer’s door with a mouth full of blood.
The cold wind blew through me. Winter was a preservative. I went back to Liquor Planet. I asked if they had free refills. Big laugh, small shake of the head. Five stars, no tip, I was thinking.
Stuck on standby. Algorithmic detention for not accepting enough deliveries the day before. I held a white van and let it move me through the falling light. Cars were honking to each other, saying hello, swapping stories. I was the car whisperer, I knew. The van slowed. I let go, filtering through traffic. I hoped someone would hit me so I could get up swinging. I thought about the time Sam U-locked someone’s mirror after they almost doored him. I laughed and my chest hurt. Like someone U-locked my ribs.
I had nowhere else to go so I went to the plaza where messengers drank away standby. When I arrived, messengers were doing track stands, motionless on their bikes.
A messenger tilted wildly and a yell rose from the crowd. The messenger recovered, but soon overbalanced. Maria was the last one upright. She sat easy in the saddle.
“Did we start yet? I could do this all night,” Maria said, shielding her eyes as she caught sight of me. “And out of the dusk, a challenger.”
My hands were trembling, from cold or something else entirely. I shook my head and leaned my bike against a tree bundled against the winter.
“Nah, my man’s too old,” a messenger said.
“You’ve never ridden a penny-farthing,” Maria said.
I sat on a cold bench. The plaza overlooked a brown field where yellow machines ate the city. The sun was between buildings. Maria rolled over, held out a beer.
“You used to come around more. Now when you show, it’s like you’re someplace else,” she said.
Maria was the closest thing I had to a friend among messengers, now that Sam was gone. Like me, she was older than most other messengers in the plaza. Unlike me, she worked for the courier collective—not an algorithm. The radio strapped to her shoulder crackled as if it heard me thinking about how she got regular hours. She leaned her bike against mine, sat beside.
“How long are you on standby for?”
“They change the rules every day,” I said, shrugged. “Could be all night, could be five minutes.”
“You should come to the office tonight after delivery hours are over. I’ll put in a good word for you. Turnover is so high, nobody remembers why they fired you. You can drop the foodie gigs for real shifts.”
“I can’t take Sam’s old job,” I said.
“It’s not,” Maria said. “It was Greta’s, then Ulysses’s. And they both left, same as everyone. Look around. It’s all new faces all the time. They’re not long for it anyway. Not like us dinosaurs.”
“The dinosaurs weren’t long for it either,” I said.
Below, machines with tires the size of people moved earth around. It was hard to wrap my head around the scale of it all.
“What about you,” I said. “When are you leaving?”
“I’ll never leave. Those trucks will have to pave me over,” Maria said.
When I laughed she tossed me the beer. It twisted in the air, and I had to catch it.
Another messenger clicked over the brick plaza. She asked Maria if she was signing up for the race this weekend, and handed over a clipboard. Maria signed her name and passed it to me. I looked at the names, recognizing only a handful.
“I’m rusty,” I said and shook my head.
“Steel is real,” Maria said. She patted her bike frame.
A light snow was beginning to fall. I thought about telling her about Sam’s bike, the drunks, the guy in the vintage army jacket. But I didn’t want to drag her down with me. I was only just keeping above water myself.
My phone woke me. I was off standby. Back online. Jacking in, I thought. The app promised a bonus if I completed ten deliveries during the blizzard. I unlocked my apartment door and walked through the dark basement. The world was a void beyond the glass lobby door. I didn’t know the storm was approaching, and now it was here. I never checked the weather. Whatever happens happens, I figured. I stowed a fifth in my jacket, rolled airplane bottles into my socks, feeling like an operator suiting up.
Outside, snow whispered against snow. The wind gusted up, the snow rushing like someone shook the world. But it always settled. I felt I was cycling through empty rooms. There was no sound beside the low crush of tires against the piste of the road.
There were bikes left out in the blizzard. Now every bike was a ghost bike. Every house and streetlight was its ghost, too. You only really knew a place when you saw ghosts everywhere.
A snowplow emerged from behind a snowbank. I stopped short, skidding. The wall of air hit me and held me. The pan of its yellow lights splashed across the white world. Salt leaped down the hill after it.
I brought coffee to a snowbound office. “Cold out there, huh?” the man said as I brushed snow out of jacket creases. Five stars, no tip.
Each delivery was a window into a life being lived. Doors opened and showed me a sliver of a world that I knew nothing about. Once, I had an order for a bunch of balloons. When I tied them to my handlebars, I pictured them pulling me into the sky.
The cold bit the tip of my nose. Wind like knives through my jacket. I had my lights on but could only see a few feet ahead.
I grinded through the morning. Before long, I only needed one more drop before I made the bonus. The slush, salt, and sand alchemized into a thick paste. I had to kick my tires free.
Eventually they seized entirely. I locked my bike to a pole. Figured I’d walk.
Then I remembered Sam’s ghost bike. It wasn’t far. The big, meat-eating tires, the heavy frame only a little twisted from the collision. When he built it, he wanted to make sure he could go anywhere. He wouldn’t mind, I told myself.
At the square where Sam died, I picked some garbage out of the front rack. I brushed snow off the seat. The cheap cable lock was brittle with cold, snapped without a fight. I promised Sam a real chain when I was done.
I cranked through the storm, slush rooster-tailing behind me. It snowed like it was the end of the world. I felt good, leaning into skids and turns, falling into snowbanks. I finished the airplane bottles and spiked them into the ghost of a trashcan.
While I picked up the order at the restaurant, the customer messaged me. They asked if I could pick up Advil on the way to their place on the hill behind the university. Chipotle and ibuprofen. Breakfast of champions. They said they’d tip extra.
I wound through snowy streets and bridges over empty highways. People sculpted cars out of snowbanks. Beach chairs, cathode-ray televisions, sawhorses stood in empty spaces.
I fought up the hill. I leaned Sam’s bike against a snowbank, hiked over it to the brick triple-decker. When the door opened, I knew him immediately. He was wearing a sweatshirt, but it was Armstrong. The man in the vintage green army jacket.
I thought about going for his throat and wondered why he didn’t do the same. Didn’t he recognize me?
The tube scarf, I remembered.
“Morning,” he said, stepping into the threshold, winced, held his forehead.
His eyes were glassy, and there was a video game controller in his hand. Behind him was a living room that looked like the scene of a bombing. Cans of beer stood like soldiers on every surface, guarding against the world. It seemed familiar, didn’t seem worth it. Everyone was their own little tragedies. All standing on top each other and wearing a trench coat, walking around and trying to blend in. I handed over the delivery, turned to crunch back down the steps.
“Wait,” he said.
Here it comes, I thought.
“Oh, you got the ibuprofen. Thanks,” he said. He flashed me a smile and a thumbs up. “Had a few too many last night. You’re a lifesaver.”
I showed him a thumbs up with my thick glove.
I got on the ghost bike as the door crashed shut behind me. I looked around at the big snowy world and shivered. Five stars, no tip.
A plow went by, salting the land. It sounded like rain falling softly. The streets were empty, woolly with snow. The city seemed like it was under glass.
Maybe I had a shot at the race this weekend, I was thinking. None of the rookie messengers could ride like this in the snow.
I coasted down the hill. The plow turned a corner and the wind died down and the world was quiet. The falling snow streaked past, and I felt I was at the bridge of a spaceship, jumping to hyperspace.