Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.
By Thomas Gada
The rocks felt like magnets. Magnets that were pulling Eric’s tires toward them. His big 29-inch wheels bounced and ricocheted off them, constantly killing his momentum.
He knew the trick. He had read about it in magazines and on mountain bike websites. Look where you want to go. Sounded easy enough in theory—but outside on the trail with the bike fighting him and the wind in his face and everything else happening at once—it was awfully hard not to stare at those rocks.
This was turning into a bad ride. Eric stopped to compose himself.
He took a long draw from his hydration pack, then exhaled a blast of steam into the wintry air. Ahead, Eric caught a glimpse of his roommate, Scott, and his friends as they disappeared behind the leafless trees. There they go, he thought. Sure, they’d wait at the next turn off, but he was tired of being the anchor.
They flowed over the trails. That’s what Eric wanted to do. Don’t over think it, he reminded himself. They’ve been riding for years. He listened to his own breathing for a moment to ground himself, clipped in and started over. It’ll get easier.
The trail dropped in front of him. He pushed his weight back and attempted to float his front wheel over a series of exposed roots. Just like Scott showed me, he thought. But his back tire bounced over a square-edged rock, sending a jolt through the rigid frame directly into his spine.
Eric clenched his jaw.
He crested a small rise, and again saw his friends further down the trail.
They were rounding a corner, approaching another, larger hill. To their left, something caught Eric’s eye. A blast of gold through the gray trees. It was a glimmer of light playing off a small pond.
He continued pedaling toward them, but they were soon out of sight once again.
The trail started to meander upward. They’re gone. He slid forward to the nose of his saddle, preparing to grind up the hill.
Then he heard the voice.
He squeezed both brake levers with gloved fingers. It was a girl’s voice, and it sounded as crisp as the air. Eric rubbed his ear. It tingled, like someone had whispered warm breath into it.
Eric looked around. “Hello?”
He turned his gaze to the shimmering water to his left. It was a few hundred feet off the trail in a grove of pine trees. The pond was very small with a hard, rocky shoreline. It was the kind of thing you passed once or twice on every ride but didn’t think much about.
“Guys?” His voice hung in the air for a moment, then faded.
Eric clipped one foot in and returned his attention to the trail that cut through the woods in front of him like a jagged brown scar. He knew this area well, but not this trail. It was completed during the fall, so he had not yet explored this area of the reservation. Few had, thanks to an early winter.
Eric felt alone.
“I’m here.” He heard the voice again. It was soft, yet very clear. Eric nearly fell from his bike. He felt the hairs on his arms bristle beneath layers of clothing, while his sweat-covered back turned to ice.
Eric whipped his head toward the pond.
He couldn’t see clearly through the trees, but he had located the source of the voice. A young woman was at the pond. No, he realized after a moment, she was in the pond. In the cold water of the pond and looking directly at him. Her head and shoulders were just visible above the water.
“I’m here,” she said in a voice that sounded like ringing crystal. It was all around him and inside his head. “Come here.” She raised her arm and water streamed from it. Then she gracefully waved him toward her.
She flipped backwards away from the shore and slid beneath the water with the tiniest of splashes and a flicker of silvery-green, only to reappear a moment later, now in the center of the small body of water.
Eric didn’t know what was going on, but he knew it was crazy. It was crazy and wrong. He fumbled to begin pedaling, his bike moving jerkily forward with only one foot clipped in. Not now, he pleaded with himself.
He felt his other foot connect with a loud snap, and he was off.
At the same time, the girl released a sound unlike anything Eric had ever heard. It was a song, but it also wasn’t. He couldn’t identify any words. Her melody was unclear. But it was most certainly a song.
That’s when the imprint was made. That’s when the pull started.
Eric cut his handlebars hard to the left. No, he thought. This isn’t right. He watched as his bike veered off the trail and he heard the crunch of trailside debris beneath his tires, but he felt as though he was watching a movie.
Her voice came to him more clearly now and he pedaled faster toward her. Toward the pond. Aware, but helpless.
He was riding on leaves, layer upon layer of brown oak leaves. The churning of his wheels released an earthy smell that, for a moment, made him think of riding his bike through piles of leaves in his backyard as a kid. Then the song seemed to tighten its grip and squeeze the memory from his mind.
Eric pedaled madly. Her voice embraced him and drew him toward her. Branches pulled at his jacket and whipped his cheeks. Without thought, he lifted and pushed his bike over the rises and drops in the terrain. It was effortless.
He could see her more clearly now. Just a little closer.
The big wheels gained momentum as he rolled down the slight hill toward the shimmering pond. He dropped his heels, pushing the tires into the ground to increase his traction over the loose terrain. Yes.
Once, his bike’s wide bars clipped a tree and sent him pinballing side to side. Yet he recovered, aware only of the song in his head.
He could see her now. Her hair was long and brown, clinging to her bare chest. Her skin was pink in the winter air and dripping with tiny rivulets of water. She didn’t look cold, despite the temperature.
He careened toward her, his bike choosing the route. As he got closer, the song in his head got louder and louder. He could see her perfect lips moving in time. And her eyes—an earthy shade of green that matched the surrounding pine trees—were watching him hungrily.
As Eric neared the shore of the pond, a dead branch flipped up into his wheel. Several quick pings filled the air, then the wheel seemed to fold and twist to the right. His grips were pulled from his hands. Everything slowed down when he went over the bars. He saw her then, her hand over her mouth, stopping the song. Stopping his song. She had fear in her eyes, and it made him sad.
That was his last thought.
Then he landed on an outcropping of rocks just on the edge of the pond. His outstretched arms buckled under his momentum and weight, then his head met the rock, and everything went black.
The first thing Eric remembered was being in Scott’s car.
“Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll get you to the…”
Then everything went black again for a while.
He woke in the hospital, then vomited. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his family was there and they kept him awake. I was in a dream, he thought, through all of their talking and well-wishes. It’s like I was in a wonderful dream and the alarm screamed and jumped me awake. But I wasn’t dreaming. It was real. It was real, and I lost it.
He struggled to keep up with their questions and to give them appropriate answers. He wasn’t there. In his mind, he was flying down the trail, back toward the pond. Zig-zagging effortlessly through the trees, his hands loose, his feet planted securely on the pedals. He and his bike, a 175-pound missile hurtling toward her and her song.
Two days later, Eric was at home on the couch. Scott walked in and threw Eric’s smashed helmet into his lap.
“What the hell were you doing?” he asked. Eric could tell he had been eager to question him so bluntly, but had held off until his roommate felt better. “Why were you off the trail?”
“Who was that girl?” Eric asked before he could stop himself. He chose not to look at the helmet. He didn’t want to see it.
“What girl?” Scott replied.
“By the water. In the water.”
Scott assured him that there was no girl in the water, then smiled and laughed it off. “How hard did you hit your head, buddy?” He asked, trying to hide his concern.
After that Scott let him rest. But Eric knew what he had seen and heard.
The next day Eric woke with her song in his ears and the twisting trail in his mind. He stood up and wasn’t too dizzy. His stomach lurched a bit as he stepped, but he was okay.
“Scott,” he called out, his voice sounding foreign in the empty apartment. “You here?”
“You home? Scott?”
Eric rushed to the back room where he and Scott stored their bikes.
No. His front rim was bent beyond repair, spokes hanging limp and bent. The handlebars were slick with leaked brake fluid. Unrideable.
Twenty minutes later, Eric was on his way to the trailhead with Scott’s bike strapped to the back of his car. An hour later, his tires were biting the hardened singletrack.
It’s not helping, he thought. Eric had hoped that simply being back on the trail—the saddle beneath him, firm grips in his hands—would quell his desire. But it didn’t. Now that he was on the trail, he just wanted to go deeper. To fly around the next corner, knowing it would bring him closer to her. To once again become overcome by the ride.
Before long, Eric found himself on the edge of his saddle, climbing the same hill on the new trail where Scott and their friends had inadvertently dropped him days before.
The glint of water was barely visible through the bare trees. He watched it as he topped the hill. Then, he saw a splash of water hang in the air for a moment in the midday sun. Eric’s racing heart threatened to burst.
“I’m on my way,” he yelled breathlessly to the woods. To the cold, clear air. To the pond and whatever waited for him.
She answered. She answered with her song, and his heart quickened further. His legs turned to liquid, but he pumped harder. Eric’s head began to throb with every rotation of the pedals.
Her song got louder as he got closer, and Eric started to fall into it again. He realized the sound was no longer in his head, but all around him. Just like it had been the other day. Her words wrapped around him and seemed to be drawing him toward her. Eric’s head didn’t hurt anymore.
His legs no longer burned.
That’s where he wanted to be.
He found his bike once again knew what to do without him—picking lines, rolling over roots and darting between rocks. He could see the spark of the water to his left, and the bike pulled him in that direction. A moment later Eric was mashing through the underbrush, playing off of everything in his path.
Eric was vaguely aware of passing the rocky outcropping that he had crashed into days earlier. The ground was still unsettled where he had fallen, brown dirt upheaved from beneath the weathered leaves.
He could see her clearly now. She was waiting for him. Her head was lifted in song, while her dark brown hair lay heavily over her shoulders and chest. Around her neck she wore a necklace of braided twigs, as gray as those that had been pulling at his feet as he rode through the woods.
She’s so close.
Eric’s front wheel splashed into the water. He pedaled and his bike slid across unseen, slime-covered rocks. Soon the icy touch of water seeped through the stiff soles of his shoes. So cold. How can she stand it?
When the water reached his knees, Eric was no longer able to pedal. He tumbled from Scott’s bike, splashing into the now waist-deep water. Eric pulled the bike behind him with one hand as he trudged forward.
The woman was beautiful. So beautiful he struggled to look at her. He closed his eyes. I’ll just listen. That’s all I need. I’ll just listen and walk.
He put one numb foot in front of the other. The shocking cold water ran snuck under his heavy jersey.
The voice stopped, and sorrow exploded inside Eric. He opened his eyes. Now she was just a few feet in front of him. Her entire torso was visible above the dark water.
“I’m here,” he said to her. “I heard you calling me.” His teeth chattered.
“Come closer,” she replied in a voice as melodic as her song. She opened her arms to him. Water streamed down her thin frame.
Eric didn’t hesitate. He took a step. The rocky bottom of the pond turned and rolled beneath his feet. He inhaled sharply. Another, then another. It was getting easier now. Then everything dropped away beneath him.
How? How could such a small pond be so deep? He was still holding onto Scott’s bike with one hand, but was treading water and trying to hold himself up while reaching toward her with his other arm. It was taking all of his effort to keep himself above water.
Sing, he thought. Please sing again.
She was coming toward Eric now, arms stretched toward him. She was swimming quickly, her upper body still suspended above the water. Eric reached out with his free arm to meet her.
Before he could blink, her hand wrapped around his forearm with a strength that contradicted her delicate beauty.
For a moment, she held him. With one hand she seemed to keep him suspended above the water. Eric smiled.
Then she dove under, her hand still tight around his arm.
She descended so hard and fast that Eric’s head was whipped back before he was dragged beneath the water. He could see the cold, hard sun through the rippling surface. He could see the bike above him, joining him in his descent. Everything around the two of them flowed effortlessly toward something below.
He could see her, too. Her hair was weightless, gently framing her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were radiant in the darkening water. Her tail swayed with easy grace. And her lips—her lips were still moving.
It was then he realized that he could still hear her song. Even though they were now far beneath the surface of the pond, her song was all around him. Before long, he had to breathe. He opened his mouth, and the song flowed into him. Filling him. Encompassing him. Eric stopped thinking, and let her carry him away.