This story is a little longer than what I will typically post on a Thursday, so I won’t give much background. I’ll save that for another time. I will say that it began as an assignment for a class. It was meant to be a short exercise, not a complete story, but once I got going, it just wrote itself. (I’ve often heard professional writers make similar annoying statements. This is the only time it’s ever happened to me. I walked around stunned. For days.) My professor suggested I send it to a magazine. So I did. I entered Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest. I won third place and $300. I have a very sweet memory of Jason running into the house from the mailbox with a letter from Glimmer Train with “third place winner” written on the envelope. He jumped onto the bed, waving it in my face to wake me up. I used the prize money to buy an elliptical machine. It’s still in our basement (the elliptical machine, not the envelope).
It was a bet made between children. The sort of thing that occurs when boys grow restless with lemonade stands or catching tadpoles, or the creek has dried to cracked dust. Not that anyone (myself, included) had ever witnessed anything of this magnitude before, but we could have. Boys will grow restless.
Boys grow restless when saturated by too much sun, when their bodies become too tanned or their hair too dry. They grow restless when given too many days of summer in which to ride their bikes and create new paths, which they will do – through fields marked with signs of “no trespassing” and the prints of young boys, through the yards of widows, until they feel the itch growing from their bellies to discover new boundaries.
It was a bet made between brothers. A bet, like most between brothers, that one never expects to be carried to fruition, like the time you found a roll of pennies in your father’s desk and insisted that your brother could not fit ten up his nose, which had been true, he only being able to squeeze three into his left nostril before being found by your mother.
(Was she, perhaps, to blame, having not come quick enough? Not quick enough to save him by a nose.)
Many evenings of setting summer sun were spent at the county hospital wriggling the big ideas out of restless boys, extracting pennies from their nostrils, stitching the cuts above their eyes. Nightly, nurses bandaged wounded elbows and knees while mothers administered the medicine of “you should have known better.” Just wait until your father hears.
It was a bet made between an older brother and a younger brother on bicycles. One rode a brand-new red Roadmaster Luxury Liner, its paint slick like the waxy skin of a Red Delicious. The other brother, having not just turned eleven, rode a secondhand (the first hand always being his brother’s) Schwinn Deluxe DX painted green, where paint remained. He was eight.
During the summer, younger brothers become tag-alongs. They follow you through Old Packard’s field riding their scraped-and-dented bottle-green bikes. As they coast through furrows, they whoop like cowboys and ride clumsily over molehills like girls or headless chickens. They draw attention to themselves and pedal slow. They bring fist-shaking widows to their porches.
No eleven-year-old wants to tote his eight-year-old brother through town. It’s not the kind of duty you volunteer for. It’s imposed upon you with threats or bribes of a dollar for fountain drinks. You crease the bill, stuff it into your back pocket and hope you don’t bump into Molly Waters or any of her friends at the soda shop while drinking brown cows with your kid brother.
After you slurp the last suds from your froth-coated glasses, you stick to fields and back roads. You stick to back roads because you will bump into fewer people than you would in town, particularly Molly Waters. You never expect your little brother to get hit.
It was a bet made out of boredom. The dollar had been reduced to change. The creek bed had been visited and jumped over – even though it was dry, presenting little threat or opportunity for amusement. Carvings had been made in the dried trough, the unsettled earth shavings transferred to pant legs and socks. The Carter boys had been invited along and Packard’s field had been ridden through twice. The bikes had even plowed between two rows of corn, the fresh leaves slicing bare arms, the underdeveloped husks beating the knuckles gripping the handlebars.
It was late summer and all the usual paths had already been taken. The bikes turned west, following the fields of corn and beans to the edge of town. They passed the Prue sisters’ place, an old farmhouse that smelled of worn muslin drapes and licorice, where boys were dragged – some by their ears – on the last days of summer to have their pants let down before the start of school. They passed the Prue place. Handy’s Fill-Up, the bait and tackle hut. They passed the last scatterings and scraps of town until they met the edge, marked by the tracks of the Southbound.
It was a bet made never to be repeated. It’s something one can’t even imagine. It’s the kind of dare that you can only conceive as you see the Southbound approaching, when the words form in your throat before you realize what you are saying. “You can have the leftover change from the sodas if you can beat the train across the tracks.”
It’s a gamble your kid brother should never take you up on. But he does. Maybe he wants to impress Bud and Joey Carter, or maybe he gets caught up in the rush of the train. Either way, he begins pedaling in hard, quick strokes upward toward the tracks. The eldest Carter whoops and beats his fist in the air like he’s at Fenway Park wanting your little brother to swing away, past the bleachers and lights.
Your kid brother is losing speed. You notice his stroke has become rough, his feet turning the spokes in uneven increments, off-rhythm. You yell for him to stop, to turn back. But he has cleared the hill and the train’s whistle drowns you out. He continues to the tracks.
It’s a tie. The Carter boy is no longer whooping. He is biting his fist as the other one screams. You run toward the tracks, change jingling in your pocket as you call your brother’s name. But nothing can be done; you must wait for the train to pass. You must wait to collect your brother, wait as the Southbound separates you.
You replay his ascent up the hill, trying to determine where he will be when the train passes.
He might have made it had he kept straight, had he not looked back. But he turned to look, look at the oncoming train, look back at me. He looked and his shoulder arched, the handlebars turning, the cross of the bike twisting. And he was a toddler again, wobbling unsteadily, his arms and legs unable to catch up with one another, as if being partnered for the first time. And he looked back, the look one more of surprise – as if questioning – than fear, as he tumbled. A toss of legs and arms. Appendages.
It was a bet made and lost.
We waited by the tracks, waited for the train to pass. We waited for the crew to collect my brother and clear away the pieces of bottle-green Schwinn. We waited for the sirens and lights to dissipate, for our parents to stop clutching us to their chests. We waited for summer to end, to outgrow our bikes.
* * * *
So there you have it, my last complete story. I’m sorry if it’s a bit more depressing than you were hoping for today (I once had someone read it and say, “but you seem like such a happy person,” and I have to say, it was harder for me reading it this time as a parent - I wasn't one when I wrote it). It’s not the path I wanted for the brothers, but I suppose if they didn’t occasionally have minds of their own, we wouldn’t call them characters. Hopefully, Audrey will offer up some more light-hearted fare for tomorrow. The next Fiction Thursday will be in two weeks. (Please forgive certain things not being centered or spaced right. I began typing this using a different program last night. Unfortunately, I'm not savvy enough to navigate between the two.)