“I think someone has been following me,” Xiao Xingchen says, peering through the blinds at the car that sits parked across the street. He can make out the vague figure of a man in the driver's seat, but the sunlight on the windows prevents him from seeing any details of his potential stalker. It's the car itself that looks familiar.
Xiao Xingchen isn’t a car guy, but this one has a sunroof and racing stripes and is generally flashy in a way that’s memorable even to someone who can’t define the difference between a sedan and a sports car. (He guesses this one is a sports model, but maybe you can put racing stripes on a sedan? He doesn’t know.) It’s kind of hideous, really—bright cherry red and so low to the ground that speed bumps are probably a nightmare—and that’s the main reason Xiao Xingchen thinks he recognizes it. He’d noticed it outside the office, he remembers, because it was the only car on the street that wasn’t a sedate shade of champagne or dark green. The more he looks, the more certain he is that this is the same car he saw while at work.
… Maybe it’s a coincidence.
“You mean whoever’s in that ugly car?” Song Lan asks, having come to stand beside him at the window.
“Yeah. I think I saw it at work—but it’s probably a coincidence, right? Maybe it’s not the same car.”
Song Lan shoots him a skeptical glance. “You think there’s two people that drive the exact same eyesore?”
“It's not impossible. I mean—oh, he’s getting out of the car.”
The man that climbs out of the ugly car doesn’t particularly look like the kind of guy that would drive a bright red sporty atrocity, meaning he doesn’t look old enough to be in the midst of a midlife crisis. He wears all black and has long hair that’s half-gathered in a sloppy ponytail, and a black messenger bag just barely clings to his shoulder. His face glitters with piercings.
“He’s coming this way,” Xiao Xingchen says, to which Song Lan hmphs and walks away, into the bedroom. He returns with a bat. Xiao Xingchen eyes the weapon and asks, “ What are you doing?”
Xiao Xingchen wants to roll his eyes, but the black-clad potential stalker makes it to the door at that moment and rings the doorbell. Xiao Xingchen moves to answer it, but Song Lan holds the bat out in front of him, barring his way. Xiao Xingchen raises his eyebrows at him in a silent are-you-serious look.
“You just said you think this guy has been following you,” Song Lan says seriously. “Why should we answer the door?”
The doorbell rings again, and then again after a moment.
“Maybe he’s here for a totally normal reason.”
“What ‘normal’ reason is there for following someone?”
The doorbell rings twice more in quick succession, then three more times.
“I don’t know, but he’s being very insistent. We should find out what he wants.”
“I’d rather not.”
“HEY!” the man at the door yells. “I SAW YOU IN THE WINDOW! I KNOW YOU’RE HOME! I’M LOOKING FOR XIAO XINGCHEN!”
"See, he's probably not a stalker," Xiao Xingchen says, earning him an alarmed look from Song Lan. He puts a hand on the window sill and leans towards the glass, trying to peek at the front door. The angle is wrong, and he can't see the man at the door, but he cranes his neck closer to the glass all the same. "What kind of stalker rings the doorbell and yells for their victim to come out?"
"One that's not very smart."
The doorbell rings again, five, six, seven times.
Xiao Xingchen draws away from the window and frowns at Song Lan. “Okay, can we please answer the door? It doesn’t sound like he’s going to stop.”
“Absolutely not. I’m not going to let a stalker annoy us into opening our door to him. We’re waiting him out.”
Xiao Xingchen sighs and goes to sit on the couch, the doorbell still ringing every couple of seconds. Song Lan peers again through the blinds, eyes narrow in suspicion and concentration.
“COME ON!” the guy yells again, sounding extremely frustrated. He violently pushes the doorbell a few more times. “I JUST WANNA TALK!”
Xiao Xingchen looks over at Song Lan, who shakes his head resolutely. “Who says that when all they want is to talk?”
Suddenly, the man appears in front of the window. He grins and waves at Song Lan, who glares back at him, lifts his bat, and shouts, “I’m calling the police!” before shutting the blinds.
“Fucking go ahead!” the potential stalker calls back as Song Lan moves to grab his phone from where he left it on the coffee table.
“Song Lan, please don’t call the police.”
“Why not? This is a situation where we might actually want their help. He's a stalker.”
“We don’t know for sure that he’s stalking me.”
“He knows your name, where you live, where you work,” Song Lan says, ticking up his fingers as he goes. “Sounds like a stalker to me.”
“Okay, no, I can admit it doesn’t sound great." Song Lan looks deeply unimpressed, so Xiao Xingchen appeals, "I promise to be careful, okay? I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“Promise me you won’t talk to him if he shows up when I’m not around,” Song Lan requests, because he knows Xiao Xingchen too well.
Xiao Xingchen intends to keep the promise. Really, he does. But the next day, as he’s walking from his car to the office, Mr. Potential Stalker himself steps directly into his path with a sweet smile and a friendly wave. Xiao Xingchen stops in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Hey,” Mr. Black-Clad Potential Stalker greets.
Xiao Xingchen gives the man a brief once-over. He looks to be around Xiao Xingchen’s age, but his fashion choices and face full of piercings make him appear younger at first glance. His hair is just as messy as it was the day previous, and Xiao Xingchen isn’t sure if he simply hasn’t changed his clothes or if he just dresses the same way every day, because the loose-fitted black muscle shirt looks exactly like the one Xiao Xingchen saw him in before. Xiao Xingchen also notes a strange licorice smell wafting off of him, like the guy took a bath in root beer.
“Are you Xiao Xingchen?” asks Mr. Possible Stalker.
Xiao Xingchen almost says “yes” automatically, but holds his tongue when he considers how angry Song Lan will be when he hears that he confirmed his identity to a potential/probable stalker. But then, why would a stalker not know who exactly his victim was? This is a weird situation.
The guy pulls a small rectangular object about the size of a cell phone from his back pocket. It’s matte black with a straw-like protrusion on one end, which he brings to his lips. He inhales deeply and then exhales a dense cloud of root beer scented vapor. (So that’s what that smell is.)
“Who are you ?” Xiao Xingchen asks, hoping it will trip the guy up somehow. It does not.
“Xue Yang,” he says, switching the boxy vape to his left hand before holding out his now free right hand. Xiao Xingchen takes it (he can't be so rude as to ignore a handshake) and they shake hands. Xue Yang has creepily intense eyes, wide and smilingly eerie as he asks, “So, are you Xiao Xingchen?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I have something I need to give him.”
Well, that’s kind of weird and suspicious. What would a perfect stranger have to give him?
“Oh. Well, good luck finding him.”
“Was the other guy in the window Xiao Xingchen?” Xue Yang asks.
Xiao Xingchen shrugs and moves to walk around the strange man.
"Tell him the bat was a nice touch," Xue Yang says as Xiao Xingchen hastens past him. He's a few steps away when Xue Yang adds, "Very intimidating!"
Xiao Xingchen bites his lips against the smile that forms and hurries to the office door.
“I’ll see you around!” Xue Yang calls after him. It should probably feel more threatening than Xiao Xingchen finds it.
Song Lan is predictably frustrated when Xiao Xingchen relates the conversation to him over dinner.
“You said you weren’t going to talk to him,” he says, shaking his head like he’s disappointed in a disobedient toddler. “You promised you weren’t going to talk to him.”
“He doesn’t seem to know whether or not I’m me,” Xiao Xingchen says, maybe just a little defensively. “I really don’t think he’s a stalker. He said he had something to give me.”
“Yeah. A rag soaked in chloroform.” Xiao Xingchen laughs, but Song Lan only frowns. “Why are you laughing? I’m serious. Why aren’t you more concerned about this?”
“This just seems like atypical stalker behavior. If he was stalking me, why did he ask if you were me?” Xiao Xingchen shrugs and takes a bite of his meal. When he finishes chewing, he suggests, “Maybe I should find out what he wants.”
“Your self-preservation instincts really make me worry sometimes.”
“I promise I’ll be okay.”
“You also promised you wouldn’t talk to him.”
It’s a good point, so Xiao Xingchen doesn’t say anything else. The conversation moves on, because they’ve both made up their minds on the subject and talking about it more will probably only cause an argument. As much as Song Lan wishes that Xiao Xingchen would just report this creep to the police, he knows that he won’t unless the guy actually does something bad. He tries to respect the decision, but he does press pepper spray into Xiao Xingchen’s hands the next morning before he leaves for work.
Xiao Xingchen next encounters the odd maybe-not-a-stalker Xue Yang after work at the grocery store. Xiao Xingchen is gently pressing avocados between his fingers, despairing the fact that he’s very bad at knowing how hard an avocado should be if he plans to eat it in three days. He sets down a rock-hard avocado and picks up an equally firm one, frowning deeply.
“Looking for a ripe one?” a man asks. Xiao Xingchen assumes it’s an employee of the store, but when he turns, he finds Xue Yang, still wearing the loose-fitting black muscle tank. Xue Yang smiles at him the same way he had the last time they’d spoken, a little uncanny yet still weirdly friendly.
“No. It’s supposed to be really hot on Monday, so I’m planning on making a salad then.”
Xue Yang nods and takes the avocado Xiao Xingchen is holding and gives it a squeeze. “This’ll be perfect then.” He holds it out for Xiao Xingchen to take.
“How can you tell?”
“Years of practice,” he says in a fake wise old man voice that makes Xiao Xingchen smile. He shrugs and amends, “I used to make sandwiches at a deli. Lotta people ordered avocado.”
“Who says dead-end jobs don’t teach you useful life skills?”
Xue Yang’s smile grows and Xiao Xingchen notices that he has extremely pointy canines, so sharp that he wonders if he had them filed. Given his whole “I’m a scary guy” vibe (that Xiao Xingchen fails to find intimidating in the least), it wouldn’t be that surprising.
“How many you need?” Xue Yang asks, gesturing at the avocados.
Xue Yang reaches into the stack and plucks one of the hard, dark green fruit and gives it an experimental squeeze. He sets it back down and selects another, a considering frown on his face as his fingers press into the textured skin. He smiles and holds it out to Xiao Xingchen.
“This one should be good,” he says. Xiao Xingchen goes to take it, but Xue Yang pulls it back just as his fingers brush against it. “I think I deserve a reward for my help.”
“You want to know if I’m Xiao Xingchen.”
“Ding ding ding.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Like I said: I have something I need to give him.”
“And you can’t tell me what it is?”
“I can if you’re Xiao Xingchen.”
His curiosity finally wins out. He’ll think of a way to apologize to Song Lan later. “Fine. I’m Xiao Xingchen.”
Xue Yang beams. “Great!” He opens his messenger bag and from it withdraws a plain manila envelope and a pen, which he uses to scrawl a phone number upon the envelope. He hands the envelope to Xiao Xingchen, who takes it with a bewildered expression. Still grinning, Xue Yang says, “You have been served.”
Then he pulls out his phone, sidles up to Xiao Xingchen (who is still a little stunned by the fact that this weirdo just served him legal documents? ), and takes a selfie ( what?? ). The picture that freezes for a moment on the screen is rather comical—Xue Yang is smiling widely and Xiao Xingchen looks deeply puzzled.
“Wait,” Xiao Xingchen says as Xue Yang pulls away from him, smiling down at his phone. “What?”
“Legal documents. Just served ‘em to you.”
“ That’s what you wanted this whole time?”
“I thought you were stalking me.”
“Kinda was. But it’s all legal and above-board stalking. State-sanctioned stalking.”
That gets a laugh out of Xiao Xingchen. “Oh, good. As long as it’s legal stalking. Was the selfie also state-sanctioned weirdness?”
“Actually, yeah. If you try to deny that you received your documents, I submit that selfie to the court as evidence that I served you successfully.” He shrugs. “Also I just like taking selfies with unsuspecting randos. Keep a folder of my faves.”
“Do I make the cut?”
“Face like yours? That’s the new cover for the album.”
Xiao Xingchen shakes his head but can’t help a smile. “Why didn’t you just say that you were trying to serve me papers?”
“People avoid you when you’re trying to serve them legal documents.” He taps his temple and smiles, adding, “Suit can’t proceed if you haven’t been notified.”
“And acting like a creep makes people less avoidant?”
“Nah, that’s just how I get my kicks.”
It’s been a while since Xiao Xingchen laughed so much. He holds up the envelope. “And this phone number? Am I supposed to call this for more information?”
“Only if the information you’re after is when I’m free.”
“It’s my number.”
Xiao Xingchen looks between the phone number and Xue Yang’s smiling face. “Oh.”
He almost tells him that he has a boyfriend, but there’s not much point. It’s not like he’d be interested in seeing this guy even if he didn't have Song Lan; Xue Yang is at least in his mid-twenties but dresses like an edgy teen and smells like the floor of a movie theater.
“You’re not gonna call me, are you?” Xue Yang asks, reading Xiao Xingchen with surprising ease. His smile never seems to falter.
“I have a boyfriend,” Xiao Xingchen tells him, sounding perhaps more apologetic than he intends to.
“No skin off my teeth.” Xue Yang shrugs and spreads his hands in front of him. “But you gotta admit—we get on like a house on fire.”
“This is probably the weirdest conversation I’ve had with a stranger.”
“But it was fun, right?” Xue Yang bounces his eyebrows, provoking another laugh from Xiao Xingchen.
“I guess it was, yeah.”
“Enjoy those avocados in three days,” Xue Yang says. And then, with what Xiao Xingchen sees as unwarranted confidence, adds, “See you soon.”
He walks away, weaving between shopping carts and displays of onions and garlic. Right before he turns the corner, he turns back, grinning when he catches Xiao Xingchen watching him go. Xue Yang brings up his hand, all the fingers except the thumb and pinky folded down, and holds it up to his head in a “call me” gesture. He winks, then vanishes around a cold drinks refrigerator.
Xiao Xingchen looks down at the envelope and at the phone number scrawled across it in untidy handwriting. And then he says,
"Wait, am I being sued ?"