Toby didn't know how long he'd been running. He didn't know where he was running. All he knew was that he was in some foreign country, probably in Asia, where he didn't know the language and hadn't a scrap of paper to legitimize his presence there. He'd run for several minutes now from a crowd of Asians, and now was lost in the hilly countryside of what he could only guess was China. Whoever it was after him, they'd given up the chase. Thanks to his work out regimen, Toby was far more athletic than the five foot farmers on his tail. Still, he dodged past trees and over many hills before he stopped running.
Now lost, Toby stopped with a gasp and sat on a stump next to a one lane dirt road. He sat there getting his breath, almost able at his circumstances.
"Well..." Toby muttered between breaths. "Charlie probably can't find us now. We're all lost. Heh, what an adventure this has turned out to be."
At this point, Toby soured. Even his false cheer paled when he remembered Bethany and Statkus. He'd gotten away, but surely they hadn't. He didn't see what happened to Bethany, but he'd heard Statkus cry out as he fell. Toby's stomach tightened. Not only was he alone, but he'd abandoned the others he should have done something to help. He hoped that they understood that he wanted to survive, but all the same, his conscious burned a hole in his chest. What was done was done, though, and he was at the point where he had to decide for himself what to do next.
"I wish I'd asked Bethany more questions." Toby pulled himself off the stump. The run had taken it out of him, but he was to restless to do nothing. "She seemed like she knew what she was talking about. Just this once, at least."
He chuckled as he remembered her personality analysis. "Heh, some hero I am. I don't think Raynor or Fenix would have run off like that."
Toby briefly considered going back and turning himself into whoever had chased them, but he'd lost his way by that point and didn't know what good it would do anyway. Left with no other option, Toby just followed along the dirt road, hoping for something to happen. For a while, nothing did. An increasingly hungry and thirsty Toby wandered on. Eventually something did happen, however.
In front of Toby, several yards ahead, were two women. One was youngish, perhaps thirty, and dressed in a simple wrap dress with pants. She carried a large basket of something, but whatever it was was covered in a cloth. Beside her was the reason why it was so easy for Toby to catch up to them: an elderly woman bent nearly double, strolling at a meager pace next to the younger lady. Perhaps she was this woman's mother, or so Toby guessed. Uncertain what else to do, and a little raw about having abandoned his two friends, Toby ached to do a good deed. And so approached them.
"Hello," Toby said, catching the younger woman a little off guard. He reached out his hands for the large basket, as it looked heavy. "Can I carry that for you?"
After several seconds of struggling to understand and lots of bowing on Toby's part, the young woman seemed to understand Toby wanted to help. The elderly woman watched everything with bright, curious eyes, but said nothing and gave no indication she was afraid or confused. Toby again reached for the basket, but the younger one shook her head and pointed to her mother. When the foreigner didn't understand, she put her basket on the ground and tugged at Toby's shoulders, turning him around before the elderly woman. It wasn't until she pushed his shoulders down that Toby finally understood. She wanted him to carry the elderly woman. So she loaded the stranger piggy-back, picked up her basket, and they went off to some destination.
It was a little awkward for Toby. Certainly the elderly woman wasn't very heavy, but she and her daughter kept going on in Chinese as though he wasn't there, and every time they laughed it made him nervous. But every time his curious eyes wandered to the young woman's face, she gave again that "you're-strange-but-I'm-polite" sort of fake smile. Toby wondered why she allowed him to help if she thought he was so weird, but he never felt good at reading people's faces, so he left it alone.
Well, whoever the old woman was, she felt pretty heavy by the time they made it to their destination. It was a quaint little village, and it sort of stunned Toby how mismatched everything felt as he wandered down meandering dirt path. The little homes, a mixture between thatched cottages and little huts, retained all the quaintness of a movie period piece from two hundred or so years ago. Dotted here and there, however, were a couple of modern day cars. One was even a fairly recent model. Between two houses were wired in hutches for chickens, ducks, and for some reason rabbits. The man feeding them wore designer jeans. A woman in clothes that more matched the young woman and Toby's burden hung colored cloths on a line, each smelling strongly of what Toby guessed to be dye. One of the line's ends was tied to a tiny shop, which bore a smart looking cigarette ad with three happy twenty-somethings in snazzy urbanwear.
Where the hell am I? Toby wondered. It's like the whole world collapsed in on itself, and random things from everywhere make up a town. What a marvelous episode of Doctor Who that would be! I think I'm going to like this place....except everyone's staring at me. Haven't they ever seen a black man before?
Toby filed that question away in his head to ask Bethany if he ever saw her again. Of course, it was a pretty remote village, by Toby's estimate. He couldn't imagine many black people wanting to live in China, not with it being a communist nation, anyway. Though as Toby curiously glanced back at all the gaping eyes around him, he couldn't help but think that these people didn't really look all that communist.
Though I don't suppose communism really has a look, now does it? Toby smiled at the strangers, and they returned it with smiles of their own, ranging from polite to sincere to very seriously amused. They seem like nice people, anyway.
A tap on his arm told him to go right, and he followed the original woman to a small, low-ceiling abode. Toby instantly loved it. The straw thatched roof hung over a well-worn wooden patio, where sat a homemade but clever little rocking chair on one side of a painted red door. A carven bench stood at the other side of the door, with little flowers cut into the back of it. This porch was the very definition of quaint, though Toby had little time to gawk over it. The young woman directed him to set her mother down on the bench, and he carefully turned around and set the elderly lady down. The woman settled down on the bench with a laugh, and with her cracked voice said what could only have been a joke, and her daughter laughed warmly, almost like she was enjoying a precocious child -- the precocious child being Toby. Toby smiled like a doofus, hoping they weren't saying anything mean.
The other people in the village approached him, but only a little trial proved Toby incapable of speaking the easiest words of their language. Not a one seemed to know english, but neither did they seem to care. The first young woman, who through much trouble and gesturing of the hands revealed that her name was Er-hong, directed him to come into the little brick house. The other women protested, however, and a discussion ensued, not quite intense enough to be a real argument. Er-hong seemed to win, though, and she directed at him to sit on the porch and went inside her house.
A few of the women dispersed, but many stayed, curious about their guest. Toby, left with no other option, pulled out his cell phone. It couldn't make any calls, but he could show the women pictures of his family. At that point he was thankful for his obsession with photography. The phone with amazing storage capacity held picture after picture of London, particularly recent ones of a shopping trip with his little sister. The pictures looped back to the earliest ones, and before Toby knew it, pictures of his recent excursion to a My Little Pony convention appeared. Laughter ran through the little crowd around him as an image of Toby in a meticulous yellow and pink Fluttershy appeared on the screen -- him in a male version costume. Toby couldn't skip it fast enough.
The women who had disappeared returned with small plates of cut-up apples and pears. They offered them to Toby and the elderly woman as a snack while the showing of pictures continued. Toby's memory card eventually ran out, but a couple of others in the crowd had cell phones that took pictures, and Toby was treated to pictures of very smart looking children in school functions. Fortunately for them, Chinese parents prefer to take pictures of their children doing proud things, rather than dressing as ponies. Though Toby didn't think a convention would be in that part of China any time soon.
After a bit, Er-hong came out of the house again and shooed the other women away. Toby and her mother went inside, where a dinner was set out on a low table. No chairs could fit under it, but the wooden floor was clean. Fortunately for him, Toby was one of those guys that can eat two pizzas in one sitting, so all the fruit he had outside in no way dented his appetite for the noodles set out before him. He, Er-hong, and Nainai -- what everyone called Er-hong's mother -- each had a little bowl of rice. Several small dishes of various vegetables covered the table, and Toby followed their lead in taking some of the things with chopsticks and mixing it with the rice. Toby felt lucky. Not only was he not a picky eater, but he already knew how to use chopsticks.
Er-hong and Nainai had a long discussion about something, which Toby politely ignored. It looked like they had a mild disagreement about something. Either that, or they had to make a decision. Whatever decision it was, they never made it. A shout rang out from outside, and voices called out to each other. At the sound of it, Er-hong disappeared into the kitchen again, then rushed out and quickly put out another setting on the table. That was what caught Toby's attention. Once the chopsticks and bowl were down, Er-hong went immediately to the door.
The noise met her there, and she soon welcomed the most modern person Toby had seen yet. He was a young man straight out of a teen magazine, except for his dorky smile and glasses. His clothes, however, were just the sort of trendy things one got out of a catalog: a streetracing shirt and faded blue jeans. He kicked off his spiffy sneakers and hugged Er-hong tightly. Once the highly enthusiastic greeting ended, she gestured over at Toby. The young man grinned.
"Oh, hello!" he said, joyfully dropping his backpack near the door as he rushed to the table to shake Toby's hand. "You are an American?"
"No, I'm British." Toby barely put his chopsticks down in time to return the handshake. "I'm Toby Collins."
"My name is Chen Fu Hao." Everything Fu Hao did was quick; he scooted next to Toby and had a pile of leeks atop his rice before he finished saying his name. "It's such good luck that you came to my house. Today is my first day visiting home from university. I speak english, but my family does not."
"I noticed." Seeing Fu Hao going to town on the leeks, Toby grabbed a couple more. Apparently this wasn't the time to be timid about eating. Er-hong brought out dish after dish of vegetables, stacking up quite the feast on the table. "Your mum can really cook."
"Yes, I have had dreams about her food while sleeping on the bus here. You picked a good time to come over." Fu Hao nodded, swallowing his noodles quickly so he could talk. "My mother always makes too much food when I am on break. If I ate everything, I would go poof! Explode!"
Fu Hao gestured his arms out wildly to the effect of an explosion, grinning his head off. Er-hong interrupted, and at that point Fu Hao ceased being in danger of blowing up. Forced to act as translator to all of Er-hong's and Nainai's nosy questions, Fu Hao could barely get a bite in. Where did Toby work? Was he in university? Was he dating anyone? What was it like in London?
Toby had the advantage. He could eat while Fu Hao translated his answers: He worked at a novelty shop, university was too expensive right now, he didn't have a girlfriend, and London was a pleasantly crowded place where he could people-watch. Something had to be lost in translation, and it took a lot of work on Fu Hao's part to explain what "people-watching" is, and that it's not creepy. It took a joke about the villagers people-watching Toby to stop Nainai from looking at him funny.
But of course then came the more obvious, and much more difficult questions. They hinged on one simple idea: how Toby got to their village in the first place. Toby was no fool; he'd been thinking up answers to this question the instant he reached the village. Statkus might have told them to rat out Aldaris, but somehow Toby couldn't see that working here. So he worked up idea after idea in his mind, resisting gritting his teeth when the inevitable happened.
"My mother wants to know," Fu Hao put more of the spicy beans in his rice bowl as he very casually asked his question. "How did you come to our village?"
Crap. It was too soon. All of the pretty lies Toby had in mind weren't finished stewing. Toby put on a pleasant smile and spat out some words. "I'm lost. I was..." Wait, didn't Fu Hao say something about bus travel earlier? Toby cleared his throat "I was on a bus, going to Beijing, when it broke down. It didn't have enough petrol. I waited for a while for them to get some more, but after a while I had to...you know, go to the bathroom. I went to some trees, and when I got back, the bus was gone."
"Ah!" Fu Hao said. "That's bad luck. Sorry, so sorry. The bus was late for Beijing, maybe. What are you doing in Beijing?"
Toby very nearly said he was at university, but he caught himself in time. He'd just said he wasn't studying right now. Quickly, he collected up his stray thoughts for an answer. There were British people in Beijing, weren't there? Wasn't an international sort of place? Again he cursed his luck and went with whatever words came first in his mind.
"I have a friend in Beijing." Toby explained. "I was supposed to meet him next week, but because of a mess up with the airplane ticket, I came to China a week earlier, and I didn't land in the Beijing airport. He didn't answer the telly, so I had to come to Beijing alone."
When Fu Hao explained this to his mother, Er-hong grew animated. She shook her head and said a few rather sharp words; Toby didn't have to know mandarin to understand what she was saying. Or was it cantonese? Toby couldn't be sure. In any case, Nainai took up Toby's defense. She swept at the air with her hand as she commented, and then patted Toby on the shoulder. Fu Hao said nothing, but focused solely on his food.
"What was that about?" Toby asked.
"Oh nothing, nothing." Fu Hao laughed as if everything were fine. "Mother believes university is more important than travelling for young people."
Toby almost blushed. Of course! How could he not realize that in his story he'd spent the money on coming to China instead of going to school? Oh well. Better a minor sin than a bad story. At least they seemed to believe it.
"It's very important for people to travel." Toby said. "If all we did was study all the time we would be bored out of our minds. We need to meet new people."
"Very good." Fu Hao grinned. "Our visitor is on my side! Grandmother and I are trying our best to convince mother to let me go to America when I graduate. Mother is afraid something bad will happen to me."
"Something bad will happen to you if you go to America. You'll be in America." Toby chuckled. "Come to London instead. Then you can come have dinner in my flat."
Dinner finished well, without any more personal questions. The family agreed that since Toby had nowhere to go, he would stay with them in Fu Hao's room for the week, and then join Fu Hao on the bus back to Beijing. Toby had no clue what he would do once he got there, but it was a plan. For now Toby went out with Fu Hao to do some chores. Surely chopping wood wasn't all that complicated.