She was surprised at the kinetic violence of her little body slamming into his frame. She felt her momentum push into him, the sickening feeling of gravity taking hold of them both as he lost his perch. He flipped end over end past the lip of the concrete pipe, uttering a perfect, perfectly quiet “buh” as he did so. She windmilled her arms desperately, but it was useless. The world tumbled. The next thing she knew, the bandit was pressed beneath her, screaming in pain. For a terrible moment she lay on top of him, kicking her legs in the air but getting no purchase, his arm flailing over her body. His gasps of pain echoed strangely from inside the helmet; his sweaty body odor filled her nose. Finally her sense of up and down returned and she rolled off of his body.
Staggering to her feet, she took a few clumsy steps away. Turning, she saw the big bandit writhing on the ground, his left arm pinned gruesomely beneath him, bent at an unnatural angle. He rolled on his side, freeing his twisted arm. For a moment he propped himself up by his other arm, seeming to attempt to rise, then sank back down.
Keeping one eye on him, Haojing circled around and approached the commotion in the pipe. With mounting fear, she crept up to the entrance and looked. To her surprise, the bandit who had approached from the front lay sprawled on the ground, unconscious or dead, she couldn’t say. But the danger was not past. The attacker who had come up from behind was draped over his opponent’s back, trying to choke him with a length of thick iron chain. The injured man was fighting to breathe, his hands clutching the length of chain as he repeatedly tried to slam the bandit against the concrete of the sewer pipe. For the first time she saw how big he was, a head taller than the man who attacked him. But he was clearly flagging, his face disturbingly red against his thick black beard.
Again she considered running, and again she felt compelled to help. She ran up towards them inside the pipe. Reaching down, she grabbed the wrench dropped by the first assailant. As she approached, the two of them continued spinning. She looked for an opening for a full-strength strike, but each time she readied herself, they would swing the wrong way again. Finally, she set about knocking him on the side of his temple with the wrench, at times coming dangerously close to striking the man she was out to help instead. The blows were weak, thanks to the awkwardness of the angle, but they succeeded in distracting the bandit sufficiently for the bigger man to finally grab control of the chain. Giving it a jerk, he first pulled it away from his neck. Then, in one grunting motion, he threw the man over his shoulder and onto the thick concrete pipe.
Stumbling slightly, he delivered a kick with his good leg to the head of his opponent, then another. The bandit lay still on the pipe floor, his body propped awkwardly against the cylindrical surface. The big bearded man raised his leg halfheartedly for one more kick, then let it fall. He leaned against the pipe for a moment, wincing. He grabbed at the thick serrated lance that was sticking out of his thigh. Blood stained his filthy pants black.
“Don’t – don’t pull it out,” Haojing said, sucking in gasps of air.
He wheeled around towards her, grimacing in pain. He studied her with a look of pure astonishment, seeming to notice her for the first time. For a moment they stood silently in the pipe, breathing, studying each other. The moment was broken by the sound of the last bandit, his haggard breaths moaning as he retreated. The big man held her gaze for another moment, then limped out of the pipe towards the sound.
She followed him out, trying to regain her composure. Again she knew she should bolt; whatever she owed this man, clearly, she had given.
He limped up behind the helmeted bandit, who himself was dragging his leg. He seemed disoriented and aimless as he retreated. As she stumbled forward, Haojing could not help but note the comical sight of the two injured, exhausted men, engaged in a pathetic race. But when the man she had saved bent over and grabbed the lawnmower blade, she knew that nothing funny was about to happen. Shaking her head, she set off after them.
Before she knew it, the big bearded man came up behind the bandit. Though in clear pain, he covered the last 10 meters with impressive speed. He swung the lawnmower blade so that the flat of it struck the other man across his back. The bandit shouted and fell to his knees, again clutching at his arm, hanging dislocated at his side. The big man stood over him, still sucking in air.
“Take… take off your helmet.”
The bandit sat, motionless but for his breathing, still clutching his wrist limply in his hand. She came up quietly behind them, not quite sure what she intended to do. The big man reached down and started wrenching off the helmet; for a moment Haojing was afraid he would break the man’s neck. Finally it popped off. The bandit was young, probably no older than Haojing herself, but his face was marked with lesions. His eyes, hollow and vacant, seemed to stare off into the distance. The big man raised the lawnmower blade over his head.
Nonchalantly, Haojing walked between them. The big man faltered and looked lost for a moment, then hardened his face into an affected scowl.
“Get out of the way,” he said, not lowering the blade, which quavered with the effort it took to keep it aloft. Haojing folded her arms.
“You look ridiculous,” she said.
For a moment he seemed to struggle to respond, then dropped the blade to his side. He stammered for a moment, looking suddenly more petulant than frightening, and Haojing noted that he, too, could not be much older than her.
“If this guy found you alone….”
She shook her head.
“He would not find me, if I didn’t want to be found, and as you may have noticed I can take care of myself.” She restrained herself from adding, “unlike you.”
She turned to the bandit, who had not moved.
“Go. Leave, right now. You may come back and check on your friends, but I’m afraid they may be beyond helping. For now you leave.”
He staggered to his feet, seeming lost, almost deranged. He cast his eyes around wildly, then finally set out on his way. As he limped away, he seemed impossibly alone. She had to remind herself that minutes before he had been intent on murder. The big man watched him go for a moment, then threw the blade down in frustration.
“He’ll be back. I know him. He’ll come for me, someday.”
Haojing set her backpack down at her feet, suddenly preoccupied with its precious cargo. As she fished the case from the bag, she looked up at him.
“Well you’ll need to be better prepared next time, then.”
“I had it under control,” he said.
She looked up at him from her crouch, eyebrows raised, saying nothing. She pulled the case open and, for the hundredth time, clutched the drive in her hand. It was fine. She spared herself a moment of anger at her own recklessness, then zipped the case shut again.
“I went into the pipe to cut off their movement, give myself an advantage.” He did not sound particularly confident in what he was saying. She zipped up her backpack, then took a second to adjust her shoelaces. He breathed out heavily and let his head hang.
“Thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you,” he said.
She nodded, then turned again to look for the bandit, but he had disappeared in the thick brush. She turned to him.
“You need to tend to that leg.”
He nodded, grudgingly, and limped over to a nearby tree. He leaned against the trunk and slipped down to a seating position, grimacing extravagantly as he did. With great effort he removed his boot. Blood pooled out from it as he laid it beside him.
“Have you got anything for a bandage?” she asked. She reached into her bag and pulled out an old shirt. She balled it up and tossed it to him where he sat. He grunted and set about wrapping his wound.
“Don’t pull it out. I’m serious. Get to a healer.”
“Wait,” he said, sliding up against the tree’s trunk. “I’m coming with you.”
She turned and shook her head.
“No. I’m in a rush. You’re hobbled. I can’t help you anymore.”
“I – that’s – I need to look after you. I can move fast. He’s still out there, the third one.”
She stood for a moment, unmoving.
“You’re going to look after me?”
He shifted his weight uncomfortably, wincing as he did so.
“I, uh. I mean, clearly, you can take care of yourself. I – thank you. Thank you.”
She nodded again. The shadows were growing long, and her impatience grew.
“I need to pay you back, somehow. Let me walk with you,” he said.
She shook her head no.
“I have to go. My family needs me, back in my village. It’s another day’s walk, east. There’s a truck on the outskirts that people use as a landmark and an old water tower near the center of town. You can meet me there if you want to express your gratitude. Now I have to go.”
He called after her as she walked away.
“What’s your name?”
She sighed and turned one last time, walking backwards and she spoke.
“Haojing. Haojing Wang.”
“Mine’s Mac. Well, I mean, it’s – it’s Dermot, but I like Mac, it was my –”
His voice faded quickly behind her as she set off with purpose towards home.