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.
The Sleepy Girls of Hurricane Creek
By Mary Emerick
I saw right off that the Sleepy Girls were different than anyone else in the tenth grade. Their eyes drooped low in math; they chewed gum furiously in history. They jogged in place sometimes until the teachers sighed and told them to sit. They took naps, finally, in study hall, where nobody cared, snoring lightly. Their elbows throbbed with bruises and their hair was snarled in yesterday’s braids. The other kids, all scrubbed and fresh-faced, ranch kids with tins of chewing tobacco in their jeans pockets, avoided them. Obviously being new, I had to stay away from them or I would never fit in. The Sleepy Girls stuck out in a way that felt raw and dangerous.
Because I knew my father had grasped onto this small Idaho town as a way of forgetting, I recognized that we wouldn’t be here long. He still remembered, and this place wasn’t far enough away, just two states, a day and a half by car, if you had enough Red Bull and gumption to keep pushing forward. I just had to stick it out, do my time, and maybe the next place we moved would be the one where we would stay. This was a pass-through place, a town where the mountains were big and the people had all lived here forever. The Sleepy Girls fascinated me, but I resolved to make friends with others, the safe kids, the ones who wouldn’t ask any questions. The ones who would not care when we inevitably moved away.
“Why are they so tired?” I asked Dennis, the kid whose locker was next to mine. He pulled his lunch and a fresh can of Copenhagen from his backpack and shrugged.
“Nobody knows,” he said. “We’re all too afraid to ask.”
“Hey Rusty,” the one called Cat said. She had snuck up on me in the cafeteria and plopped down into the empty seat next to me. The seats at my table were all empty, the other kids were feeling me out before they made a move, looking at my not-Wranglers, my closely cropped hair. Nobody else had been bold enough to come near.
I tried not to stare. A faint shadow of a healing bruise darkened her cheek, and dirt was embedded in her nails. She looked like she had rolled out of a bed of leaves. She looked like nobody else I had ever known; a hint of wildness and fresh air in a room that smelled of sweat and macaroni.
“Rusty,” she said again. “You’re from Portland, right, where it rains like a mofo? And there’s your hair, what there is of it. So, I’m calling you Rusty. Do you have a bike?”
I put down my PB&J and gaped. I had expected her to ask me for weed or a flask, looking the way she did. “A bike?”
“A bike,” she repeated. “A mountain bike. Do you have one?”
“Well, a Trek, it’s kind of old…”
“Good,” she said, rising from her seat. “We need a fourth since the logging dried up and Cindy’s dad moved her away. To Iowa. God. You know, a fourth? If someone gets hurt? One person to stay, two to go for help.”
“Are you just going to repeat everything I say? I thought you were supposed to be smart. Don’t make me regret asking you, Rusty. Meet us at the Hurricane Creek trail at nine tonight. And bring a headlamp.”
“Headlamp?” I managed. “So we’re riding bikes?”
Cat winked. “Not just riding. We’re night riding.”
My sandwich and loneliness forgotten, I watched her stride away to where the other two sat, a colorful island in a sea of grey sweatshirts. The other kids eddied around them carefully, giving them room. The Sleepy Girls were a force. They mattered. Nobody, I thought, could ever leave them and not come back.
Getting away from our rental house was easy. My father had turned into a slump-shouldered man I no longer knew. He heated up mac and cheese in the microwave and hunched over his plate, TV droning in the background, his eyes blank. I could have said I was going to a crack house and he would have barely blinked. His sorrow hung so thick over the house that it was like breathing smoke. Sometimes I thought I would drown in it.
The girls were waiting at the Hurricane Creek trailhead, just up the road a half mile. They leaned against bikes of indeterminate age, bikes dented and paint-chipped and duct-taped. When they saw me, they only nodded. They wore jean cut-offs, the long fraying strands loose on their thighs, and faded AC/DC T-shirts. They did not look like the mountain bikers I had seen on the trails in Portland, all decked out in shiny logoed kits. But when the girls swung onto their saddles it was breathtaking. Their legs pumped the pedals and their hair streamed back over their shoulders. They were not girls riding mountain bikes but one thing, one creature, steel and flesh. Within seconds they had dropped me, speeding through darkening trees as if they had wings.
I had never ridden a bike in the dark, and the part of me that was still careful knew it was dangerous. Anything could happen. Broken collarbone, wolves, mountain lions. I thought about going back, but the memory of my father’s sunken face bathed in blue light from the television spurred me on. I thought of the silence, thick enough to drink, and the phone that never rang, my father lifting it to listen to the dial tone. Night riding couldn’t be worse than that. The light from my headlamp bounced through the dark woods and onto the slender ribbon of trail. I hung on white-knuckled, my butt bouncing off the seat, the front wheel skipping sideways over unseen rocks.
I thought back to all the afternoons I had ridden around Portland, looking for my mother’s Jetta. It had to be somewhere, at the Safeway down on Twenty-third, in the apartments over on Fifth. I rode until my butt chafed, until sweat turned my shirt damp. I never did find it. I still had no idea where she was.
The trail punched through skinny lodgepole pines and snaked its way uphill. Switchbacks gave way to an eroded tread. Pebbles slipped under my wheels. I ground my way in granny up a steep incline and braked hard on the descent, death-gripping. This was not the safe riding I had done in the city. This was combat riding, alluring and terrifying. Trees loomed close in the oval cast by my light; bushes slapped my face. After a while, spooked, I got off and walked, hauling the bike over fallen trees.
I came around a sharp corner to find Cat off her bike, waiting for me. Fresh blood trickled down her leg and she rubbed at it with a bandanna and spit. “Went over the bars,” she said cheerfully. “Took the turn too fast and hit a branch. Face plant, big time. Rookie mistake.”
I straddled my bike, breathing hard. I was sure I had failed some sort of test. “Sorry I can’t hang,” I said. “How come you don’t ask some of the boys in school?”
“We don’t invite boys because they get too aggro. We just want to ride. None of the balls to the wall competitive stuff. You’re doing fine for the first time. We were all like that, in the beginning. Hike a bike, mostly.”
She seemed in no hurry to move on, so I gulped stale water from my bottle. “How come you night ride?” I asked.
“Because,” Cat said. She idly picked at a scab. “It’s the only time we feel free, I guess.”
She studied me carefully under her headlamp. “And what’s your story? How come you came night riding with us? I thought you would bail for sure.”
“What about the others?” I asked, avoiding her question. “Aren’t they going to get pissed, having to wait for us?”
“Dude,” Cat said. “None of us get pissed. That’s for, like, the Barbie girls. You know, the ones in school with the makeup and hair thing going on? We’ve got each other’s backs. None of us really have family. We’re each other’s family. “
Suddenly I wanted to be one of the Sleepy Girls, wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted in my life. I wanted to be in their family, tousle-haired and tough, a family I wasn’t born into but one I chose. The words came tumbling out.
“My mother left us,” I said. “She met a man, and she left us. Not just my father, but me too. Threw me away like I was trash she no longer wanted. She hasn’t called and we don’t even know where she is. She needed to be happy, she said. Her life was passing her by and she needed to be happy.” I remembered staring into the mirror, grabbing the scissors to hack at the long hair, so much like hers. I’ll show her. All that beautiful red hair. Don’t ever cut it, promise. The sting was still there, even three months old, even though my hair was finally starting to grow back.
“That’s no big thing,” Cat said. “All of us have our own secrets. Riana’s dad’s in prison. Killed a guy with a steak knife outside the Lost Souls Tavern. Amber had a baby in sixth grade and gave it up for adoption. The dude just blew her off, wouldn’t even admit it was his. Don’t think you’re the only one with a story.”
“And what about you? What’s your story?”
She looked down at the ground. “I’ll tell you one day,” she said. “If you stick with us.”
She gave me a thumbs up. “Yeah. I knew you were one of us.”
That was why they rode, I thought. For a few hours the Sleepy Girls could forget the things that dogged them like shadows. They could fly weightless over boulders and through rivers and under the canopy of the trees. They rode old bikes that slipped gears and had brakes that screamed hot on the downhills, bikes that nobody else wanted. It didn’t matter to the Sleepy Girls. They were chasing something that they might someday catch.
I didn’t want to say what I was thinking, not yet. If I was right, there would be endless nights of riding before the snow shut us down, September and October nights with aspen leaves, big as plates, falling onto the trail. Nights to escape the life I had somehow tumbled into, nights to figure out how to leave it.
“Hey, we’re not getting anywhere just sitting here,” Cat said, jumping up. “Let’s shred.”
“What’s ahead?” I asked, peering into the shadows.
She grinned, her teeth a flash of white. “Let’s go find out, Rusty. You in?”
I hung behind her wheel for a few minutes before she hurtled out of sight, her headlamp fading as she pulled away. I was alone again in the darkness, skinny legs pedaling for all I was worth, but this time it felt different. I knew that the Sleepy Girls of Hurricane Creek were just ahead of me, their lights shining bright, chasing away from things that hurt them, chasing down whatever they could find and keep.