Heroes don’t wear capes

James looked at the notification on his phone and made his way to the mall just five minutes away from where he was. He adjusted the large bulky insulated bag on his sweat drenched back and he started pedalling along the road. Ever since he lost his job four months ago, James had been running food deliveries for one of the popular apps every day. He clocked in about 10 hours on weekdays and 12 hours on weekends.

Single with no major commitments and still living with his parents, James could afford to take a couple of days off if he wanted too but he chose to work every day. His parents were well into their sixties and were retired. No one knew he had lost his job, not even his parents.  He didn’t want them to worry about him. James sent out more than a hundred resumes but so far he received no reply. At 39 years old, he was not exactly in the prime of his career. The industry he was formerly in had plenty of foreigners ready to take on his role at half the pay he used to draw. Which employer would reject someone younger, faster and cheaper?

Well this is life isn’t it, James thought as he slowed to a stop at the junction, leaning sharply to his left when a BMW veered really close to him despite the mandated minimum distance between cyclists and vehicles. James carried his old mountain bike off the road and onto the pavement. The pretty girl in the car looked at him with disdain before saying something to her boyfriend. Ignoring their looks, James started pedalling only to receive yet another irritated look by a pedestrian. “Bicycles should go on the road.” The auntie said in a snarky manner. James pretended he did not hear that.

He bought his bicycle when he was in secondary school. It still worked well with a bit of regular maintenance, although it was a far cry from the road bikes and fancy foldies you saw on the road these days, it still got the job done.

James felt like a bit of a pest sometimes.  He had all the safety lights on his bicycle, he wore his helmet and he kept within the speed limit. On the road, he was often bullied by vehicles and sometimes by other riders. They would shout at him from behind, announcing their arrival before zooming pass so fast that he usually would pull over to the kerb and let them go on ahead. On the pedestrian pathways, walkers often would give him dirty looks. It was like it was beneath them to share a path with a cyclist. Sometimes James wished he could tell them that beneath that helmet, behind the uniform of the man pedalling to deliver food lay a fellow citizen. He was a Singaporean. He served in the army. He held the same pink IC as the rest of the people on the roads and pathways. Why were they discriminating against him? Just because he wore a different shade of green, he no longer deserved the same amount of respect?

Arriving at the mall, James parked his bicycle at the designated area for bicycles. He quickly made his way to the bubble tea shop where he needed to pick up an order for a single cup of Earl Grey milk tea. A single cup that cost $3.80 His delivery fee for that cup of tea after factoring in the distance was $5.26. There was something wrong with the math there but things like that were beyond him.

“Hi, Order 335.” James said to the staff upon reaching only to receive a rude reply, “Not ready yet. Wait there!” The guy pointed to a corner where several other riders were waiting for their orders. James looked at the digital display which showed the orders being prepared. There were still 10 more before his turn. He walked over to the corner reserved for invisible people like him. Everyone there was just staring blankly at the order display. When the staff barked out the order number like a rude company sergeant major who had just undergone an anal probe, a rider would walk up and collect the drink.

Just before James order was due, he received another order from the same shop. He groaned as that meant he needed to wait even longer at the same spot for the other drink to be ready, while holding onto the first drink, risking being late for his delivery and facing the wrath of the first customer. A fellow rider saw that and he chuckled before offering James some advice, “Bro, next time shut down the app first. Just take one order. This shop always like that one… Don’t waste your time.”

“Oh… okay… thanks…”

“335!” Shouted the staff at the counter.James walked up and had the drink thrusted into his hand. “Hi, I have another order 372…”

“THEN YOU JUST WAIT LONGER. IF YOU CANNOT WAIT. JUST CANCEL ORDER!” Came the loud reply from the overworked staff.

James took a deep breath and held it in long enough for another rider to come over. He held onto James’s arm and pulled him back as the eyes of the customers in the shop descended upon him.

“Suar la Suar la (forget it) bro, not worth it to engage people like him.” The rider said.

James exhaled and turned to the man with a head of blonde hair and a sleeve tattoo. James had seen him around the mall a couple of times.

“Don’t give a fuck about him. He’s a fucking asshole.” The man said before introducing himself to James as Roger.

“Nice to meet you. Roger.”

The two engaged in some small talk about the day and their earnings. It helped. It really helped in taking the edge off for James. Sometimes after a day of taking shit from other people, all you needed was just to have a short chat with someone who knew what you were going through.

James finally got his other order and he exchanged a fist-bump with Roger before leaving. “See you around bro.”

“Ride safe man.” Roger gave him a thumb’s up before turning to another rider.

James snapped his phone onto his bicycle and followed the GPS route to the customer’s place. He was riding along the pedestrian path when he saw a father with his daughter about 50 metres away. The toddler was probably about a year old and just started to learn how to walk. She trotted in a wobbly manner as she swung her arms about for balance with her father following close behind. With the sun setting behind the duo, they casted a long shadow towards James. It was a heart-warming sight to see the little girl laughing in a triumphant manner after having conquered one of life’s major milestones, learning how to walk. The father had his arms held opened behind the girl, ready to catch her if she fell.

James slowed down and after checking it was safe to do so, he carried his bicycle onto the road. He started pedalling on the road towards the father and daughter. He was smiling as he slowly peddled forward. A strange sensation swept over him and he suddenly felt that something was off. There was a prickly sensation on his skin. He felt a slight pain in his chest, as if someone had tried squeezing his heart. James hit the brakes on his bicycle and stopped less than five metres away from the little girl. The screeching of car tires reached his ears just as he turned to see a truck veering out of control in the opposite direction.

The truck rammed into the back of a bus, sending it forward and causing a chain accident with two other sedans in front. The impact changed the direction of the truck, causing it to mount the centre divider. The truck ripped to shreds the green railings that you typically saw in the centre of the road. As its engine kept running, its axle jammed and locked the direction of the wheels.

Before James could come to terms with what was happening, the truck rolled over a motorcyclist on his side of the road before it continued barrelling straight towards him. James jumped off his bike, dropping his backpack as he ran up to the pavement. His skin felt like it was burning. It was as if someone had pressed a hot iron onto every inch of skin on his body. He saw the little girl running toward him with her father close behind.

The headlights from the truck illuminated the three of them, blinding them as it headed straight towards them. James shouted out as he grabbed onto the little girl and shielded her with his body, just seconds before her father wrapped his body around her from behind. The truck rammed into James with such impact that the rear of the vehicle was sent hurling up five metres into the air before it slammed down onto the road, sending debris and metal flying all over the street.

James had his eyes squeezed shut as he felt the wrecked metal wrapping around his body. He opened his eyes to see a body impaled by several large pieces of metal. He looked at the girl’s father and knew he was gone. James looking down at the little girl in his arms and saw her trembling in fear. He looked down at his own body and he had the shock of his life.

Instead of mangled flesh and shattered bones, his body shimmered like freshly forged metal straight from the furnace. James stood up and easily pushed his way out from the wreckage. He carried the little girl to the side and looked at his own arms. Like layers of fish scales playing a game of Reversi, his skin started to change, flipping over to reveal the texture and colour that he was accustomed to. Each reversal brought excruciating pain; it felt as if someone was cutting into his raw nerves with a scalpel.

James didn’t know if he was dreaming. He stared at the little girl who was crying for her father, he saw the first bystanders approaching. A lady ran over screaming and crying for her daughter and husband. Her relief at seeing her daughter safe was shattered by the realisation of the death of her husband. James slowly backed away from the scene in a daze. Something was wrong with him, something was wrong with his body.

He felt an angry vibration in his pocket and was reminded of the angry customer who waiting for his bubble tea. James picked up his backpack as other drivers and pedestrians rushed to help the injured. His bicycle lay on its side where it fell. He got onto his bicycle and tried to calm himself. No one paid him any attention. It was like he had gone back to being invisible, just another delivery rider on the road who was lucky to escape an accident.

James pedalled away from the accident scene. He would have time to figure this shit out later. First, he needed to deliver the fucking bubble tea.

At the housing estate just across the road from the accident, Roger held onto his order that he was about to deliver when he heard the commotion. With the order in his left hand, Roger took out a pack of cigarettes and pulled out one with his teeth. He looked around to make sure no one was around the spot he was standing. Roger lifted his index finger and a flame ignited after a series of sparks. He lit his fag and took a long drag before blowing the smoke into the cool evening air.

11000 words

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