An at-speed, metal-on-metal collision emits a sharp cacophony of destruction, a series of micro-events producing a soundtrack that the mind cannot unhear. The dirt bike’s knobby tire skitters along the length of the car’s front quarter panel until it finds the narrow gap where the fender and passenger side door meet. The front shocks compress, a tsunami force at work to pull the bike, forks first, into the car’s floorboard.
The impact occurs at sufficient speed to cause the vehicle to buck, launching the rider headlong across the car’s rooftop where the assault continues in a parade of secondary collisions. The girl who’s been riding, pressed close enough against the back of his thin t-shirt for Chris to feel the rise and fall of her round breasts, her arms crushing his ribcage as the bike finds speed over uneven ground, is thrown clear, like she’s never been part of his world. If she’s been truthful with him, her name is Nia. The two had only just met a few hours prior to the incident.
Chris cannot remember a time when there was not a girl he liked. A girl, singular as opposed to the vast flock plucked casually from the female gender that invariably catches Jalen’s eye. Chris first spied Nia among a handful of girls a couple weeks back at the service station that sits catty-corner to the park where he and Jalen had stopped to fill their tanks–two-dollars each of regular. That should last the better part of the week, tearing around Indian Field which sits empty year-round, minus a longish week each spring when the carnival comes through, Poquonnock Bridge taking center stage on the boys’ side of town.
Chris had never encountered a girl anywhere close to him in skin tone who had freckles–a speckled hen’s egg, brown like his mother ultimately meant when she sent him to pick up a carton from Central Supermarket, a scattering of tiny flecks colored a shade browner still decorating the crowned tip of each eggshell. Could it be that he too has freckles, buried inside the depth of his dark-roast complexion? The freckles alone cemented a deep-seated infatuation.
Chris seemed content to study the group from afar, watching each afternoon as one car after another parked and let out a small gaggle of girls, each dressed in a pair of those piped, polyester shorts that make dreamy thighs appear all the more dreamy. The girls jostled around one another a bit, waiting for those yet to arrive–freshmen and sophomores evidently paired to carpool with one of the upperclassmen. Once fully assembled, they proceeded up the hill in the direction of the vocational school.
Jalen insisted they have a closer look. He had a theory brewing that even a girl you’re just now meeting will grant you thirty seconds before deciding whether she intends to like you. The boys pushed their bikes across Fort Hill Rd to the park. Even a cop with nothing better to do will give chase if he catches you riding an unregistered dirt bike on the street. There’s a good chance the bike is stolen.
They set up at the base of the hill, not far from where the girls had parked, and waited for them to return. The air held an evacuated heat, one you could escape by just standing still enough. Come this time of year, a trifling, little wind blows in fits along the southeastern Connecticut coastline, the end of summer break fast approaching.
In summers past, Chris and Jalen had ridden the hill leading away from the vocational school by skateboard. Varying degrees of success had left an impressive array of scars, marring the skin along their elbows and knees with lasting evidence of their death defying, downhill feats. That was before they’d bought out the LaVigne twins and took over the brothers’ paper routes. A year of scrimping had afforded the means to acquire dirt bikes. (Jalen wound up getting the money from his parents–he wasn’t so good at scrimping.)
A little maneuvering put Jalen in the path of one group of girls. He was met head-on by their apparent lead, more than cute but near enough to this side of pretty that she’d still entertain a conversation with him.
“What do you all do up there every day?” Jalen asked, seeming to genuinely want to know.
“We’re part of the all-girl chorus at the high school. We’re practicing for a show scheduled to celebrate the first day of class.”
“Who celebrates the start of school?” Jalen groused.
“It’s primarily for the parents,” she explained. “It gives them a sense that their precious, little fuzzballs are being ushered warmly into this next step in their education,” she added with a click of her tongue.
Jalen’s shoulders tensed at use of the term fuzzballs. The start of the first year of high school loomed but a few weeks away. He didn’t believe she had meant on purpose to draw attention to the neat little Afros he and Chris had begun sporting in middle school. But somehow her subconscious had gone there. Their thirty seconds were up.
Jalen was back on his bike and across Fort Hill Rd before Chris could protest. Chris shrugged a sheepish farewell in the direction of those brown-skin freckles then charged off after Jalen.
Chris was intent on returning to the park the next day, only earlier to catch the girls on their way up the hill and back down afterwards. Jalen wouldn’t hear of it.
“You like her,” Jalen flung in Chris’s direction.
“Like who?” Chris replied, pretending to be put off by the accusation.
“The brown-skin chick with the freckles.” Jalen had picked up the chick bit from his older brother–every girl his brother had encountered that summer became a chick, a dame, a fly-ass honey. His brother said they needed to learn quick-fast and in a hurry how to separate the lame chicks from the game chicks. Neither boy had yet figured what the brother meant by game chicks.
“We can go,” Jalen offered, giving in to his friend’s wishes. “But the second that fuzzy-ball chick starts in, I’m outta there.”
The girls show up as scheduled, each carrying a satin dress draped across her forearm, the dress’s fabric stained blood-red.
“What’s with the prom dresses?” Jalen asks.
Again, cute enough to be cute, just not so cute for Jalen to take any crap off her, steps ahead of their crew. “They’re choral gowns,” she replies. “Prom is at the end of the school year. But you wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Play your cards right, and, come the end of the school year, I just might let you take me to prom,” Jalen answers, twirling a leftover Pixy Stix wrapper in the side of his jaw. He has evidently spotted some game in this would-be lame chick.
“Whatever,” she snorts, her nose crinkled to shade evidence of a thin smile working to form across her lips–most certainly a game chick.
“What’s with the dirt bikes?” she asks, waving a finger in the direction of the basketball goal support Jalen has enlisted to prop his bike up, a kickstand an extravagance he has worked to convince Chris real dirt bikes are better equipped to do without.
“Just a little something to get around,” Jalen responds.
“You ought to give a girl a ride some time.”
“I can give you a ride right now,” Jalen starts in, the plan hatching out of thin air as far as Chris is concerned. “For a small fee,” he says, rubbing his fingers together.
“What sort of fee?” Not-so-cute wants to know.
Jalen saunters off. He begins turning small circles a short distance apart from them, his hand at his chin working to drum up a figure. “A dollar each,” he says, heading back in the girls’ direction. “My buddy, Chris, and I will shuttle you up the hill.” It’s Nia’s turn to crinkle her nose, a smile brewing beneath those brown-skin freckles.
“Round-trip?” Not-so asks.
“Round-trip,” Jalen agrees, already regretting having to be on someone else’s schedule, game chicks or not.
“For the rest of the week,” she shoots back. “Whaddya say?”
Jalen stares a minute to fully take her in–cuter than cute, just this side of pretty. “Two dollars each,” he concedes. “And you’ve got a deal.”
Jalen kick starts his bike, toes the shifter back to neutral then gooses the throttle, sending a small thrill throughout the all-girl chorus, game chicks without question. He extends his free hand, motions for Cute-enough to stand, one foot on a foot peg, then swing her other leg over the seat. He guides her arm around his waist, pulling her close in behind him, then scampers away, an exhaust plume lifted in their wake.
Chris extends a hand toward Nia, working to imitate his friend’s gallantry. He fumbles with how to tell her to hang on when he feels her slip an arm around his waist, her other hand clutching onto a generous bunch of fabric along the bottom of his t-shirt. He needs to rush to keep pace. Jalen’s bike is older, more used than Chris’s used bike. But Jalen is the bigger daredevil granting him a built-in speed advantage.
Half-a-dozen round trips and the boys succeed in depositing their patrons safe and sound in front of the performing arts center, school administrators seeming to hold the belief that certain aspects of performing arts–set construction, special effects, lighting and sound arrangement–can be taught as part of the vocational curriculum. They secured public funding to construct the campus despite proximity to the high school, sitting just a short ride further uphill. Jalen and Chris had watched the whole thing grow out of the dirt from the trail head accessible at the far end of the park.
On their way back down to the park, the boys spot a couple of stragglers who seem to now regret having been less than keen on taking them up on their offer. Jalen slows beside the heavier of the two, boosts her onto the seat behind him then turns back in the direction of the arts center. Once committed, it is hard to shake Jalen from completing a task he’s been given. Getting him to commit in the first place is an altogether separate matter.
The boys are left with just over an hour to kill. Jalen shakes his head, NO, when Chris asks whether he wants to head over to Indian Field and ride the time away, likely concerned about the dent the day’s venture has already made in the two dollars’ worth of gas he’d put in his tank. It’s just as well. Chris can’t afford to risk being late for pick up, his interest still keen on making a favorable impression on Nia. He disappears inside his head, contemplating whether to take her first or last on the way back down to the park. First is a sure sign of his eagerness to see her. But last will allow time alone to chat while the rest of the crew packs themselves back inside their cars.
“All this for a funky seven bucks each,” Jalen complains, cutting short Chris’s daydreaming. “With seven bucks more to look forward to if we stick it out the rest of the week.” (Half up front, half at the end of the week, a condition Not-so had thrown in last minute.)
The monotony of the same hill, back and forth over the span of a couple hours, without the prospect of a tiny skateboard wheel meeting with certain disaster when it encounters a rough pebble in the roadway, has Jalen on the verge of tossing in the towel. He instead sets out the long way around the trail through the back side of the park once Chris signals time for pick up. Chris has no choice but to follow, the first/last, last/first debate still raging inside his head.
They reach the school grounds just as the girls begin filing out. Nia is first to appear, even ahead of More-than-cute, as eager apparently to see Chris as he is to see her. She heads straight for him, at last letting a full smile find its way to her lips. She takes his hand, places one foot on a peg then climbs aboard, the maneuver seeming like something the two of them have practiced since the beginning of time.
As is to be expected, Jalen sets off well in front of Chris, This-side-of-pretty secure against his back as they begin the trek downhill. Around the first bend, Chris catches sight of Jalen heading back in their direction. Jalen signals something as the two bikes pass, making a circular motion with his hand. ‘Circle back?’ Chris questions. SIREN. The circular motion with his hand is meant to signify SIREN.
Chris gets the bike stopped and turned around in time to see a pair of police cruisers charging toward them. He turns over his shoulder and mouths to Nia, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ All she gathers is the OK. She mouths a stuttered Uh-huh believing he’s asked a question.
She tightens her grip as they whiz across the school grounds. They find Jalen waiting, his bike pointing in the direction of the trail head. He motions for Chris to head further in the direction of the high school then takes off down the pathway leading back in the direction of the park. Jalen is easily the better equipped of the two to lead a chase if there’s to be one, the way downhill mostly navigable by four-wheel vehicle. Chris will fare better sticking to the dirt path. If Jalen can make it to the softball diamonds, slip through the fence that lets out onto Midway Oval, he can make a beeline toward Indian Field then disappear inside the trails situated deep inside the next neighborhood over.
Chris has to set his feet down to pick through a jumble of heavy boulders, the bike’s handlebars jolting wildly with the continual shift in terrain. The trail head eventually opens onto a paved walkway. They pass the football field, a rendering of the high school’s mascot guarding either end zone. Chris gives Nia’s hand a gentle tug as they skirt between the tennis courts, believing they are at last in the clear.
Chris idles along the bus lane marked in newly freshened yellow paint as it passes in front of the school building. It won’t be long before this becomes a central part of his daily commute, seated on the school bus alongside Jalen.
A dull siren reverberates off the wall of mirrored glass on the front of the building. Nia nudges Chris’s shoulder, having spotted a pair of police cruisers closing in on the far end of the driveway giving access to the school grounds. Chris pulls hard on the throttle and heads for the line of trees separating the schoolyard from the main thoroughfare.
If there had been a pathway through the line of trees, the underbrush is now hopelessly overgrown. Chris points the bike toward a shifting dapple of light as the sun comes and goes in between towering tree trunks. He muscles to keep the bike upright as the littering of dead leaves and fallen tree branches grows thick beneath the bike’s front tire. He instructs Nia to step down from the seat and wait while he hops the bike over a stacked-stone knee wall then across a steep ravine, working to keep his momentum up the way Jalen had shown him to do. They hurriedly repeat their foot peg ritual, the tips of her fingers pressed tightly against his, then set off again, a swirling of blue and red light visible in between dangling tree limbs.
They emerge along the roadway near the top of Fort Hill. Once the leaves have fallen, McDonald’s golden arches become visible on an opposing hilltop through the naked tree limbs. Chris speeds along the shoulder opposite the flow of traffic, wary the whole while of sirens followed by the hard charge of another police cruiser. He waits for a lull in the flow then ducks across all four lanes.
Chris ventures a glance in the direction of the park, hoping to catch sight of Jalen as they approach the light at the bottom of the hill. ‘PLEASE STAY GREEN’, he mutters an urgent plea. Through the intersection, then past the pumps at the service station and they are home free, shoots of tall grass whipping the outsides of their thighs as they take to the path marking the way across Indian Field.
As they reach the corner, a car makes a right-hand turn in front of Chris’s bike, the driver a regular Joe, unaware of an unregistered dirt bike screaming along the roadside, lost in the driver’s blind spot. A loud screech anchors the soundtrack as it grows to punctuate the violence of the collision, rubber on metal as the bike’s knobby tire scrambles for grip the way knobby tires are prone to do. The acrid smell of burning rubber sharpens the air as the front wheel resists the urge to disappear beneath the pavement.
The tire eventually catches hold, letting loose a new angle of sound as the car’s full girth is lifted half-a-foot in the air. The car bounces on the landing, launching Chris onto the rooftop like some carnival ride, held over for an encore appearance well past its scheduled departure last spring. Chris’s bike spirals and whirs back in the direction of the service station, an enraged bull, though free of its riders, ambling recklessly fueled by pent-up adrenalin. Chris’s body follows the car another hundred yards down the roadway. He had every intention of seeing her again, Nia if that is indeed her name, their first day of high school together, just a few weeks away.