It only lasted a few seconds, and then I was coming down hard, the bike hitting the pavement with a bang beneath me, even as it kept moving forward. I felt the shock all the way from my fingertips to my elbows as I tried to control the handlebars, hanging on for dear life as the tires skidded, trying to fall over sideways. This was the point where I’d always given into the crash, squeezing my eyes shut as the garbage can or bushes came closer, closer, closer. But now, I kept them wide open and just held on, and after a spray of sand, I was somehow back upright, and moving on.
My hands were shaking as I carefully eased on my brake, feeling my pulse thudding in my temple. It was all so clear to me – the fast approach, spotting the curb, and launching up, up, up – and yet at the same time, I could not believe I’d actually done it. In fact, it didn’t even seem real until I circled around, still shaking, and saw Eli, who at some point had pulled over to the curb and gotten out of his truck and was now just standing there, staring at me.
‘Holy crap,’ he said finally. ‘That was awesome.’
He nodded. ‘And here I thought you couldn’t ride a bike.’
I smiled, then pedaled back toward him. It was only as I got closer that I noticed he was not in his usual jeans and T-shirt or hoodie, but wearing nice black pants, some vintage-looking shiny dress shoes, and a long-sleeved white shirt, untucked. ‘I couldn’t,’ I said, coming to a stop beside him. ‘Maggie taught me.’
‘How to jump, too?’
‘Um, no,’ I said, feeling myself flush. ‘I kind of winged that part, actually.’
‘You couldn’t tell?’
He looked at me for a moment. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I could.’
‘What gave me away? The look of pure terror on my face?’
‘Nope.’ He leaned back on his heels. ‘In fact, you didn’t look scared at all.’
‘How did I look?’
‘Ready,’ he replied.
I considered this as I looked down at my bike. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think I was, actually.’
Maybe this should have felt strange, especially after all that had happened. But it didn’t. Perhaps because it was nighttime, when things that might have felt odd in daylight instead seemed just right. Like riding a bike in a prom dress and crossing paths with only one person, and it’s the only person you want to see.
If it was light out, I would have questioned more, second-guessed, started to overthink. But now, it seemed natural to turn to Eli and say, ‘You were right, you know.’
‘Me,’ I said. ‘How I always quit if I don’t get something right the first time. It’s been a big mistake.’
‘So you believe in second chances now,’ he said, clarifying.
‘I believe,’ I said, ‘in however many you might need to get it right.’
Eli slid his hands back in his pockets. ‘I’m believing in that, too, actually. Especially today.’
He nodded, then gestured to his truck behind him. ‘So… you know how I said no to you earlier. When you asked about the prom.’
I felt my face flush. ‘I think I remember that, yeah.’
‘I had this competition, in Roardale. I’ve actually been back competing for a few weeks now.’
He looked surprised, which I had to admit I kind of liked, as it was so rare. ‘How?’
‘I’ve been kind of keeping up with the standings,’ I said. ‘Online. So how’d you do?’
I smiled. ‘That’s great. So I guess you’re back riding for real, now?’
‘Nope. I’m done.’
‘You’re quitting again?’
‘Retiring,’ he corrected me. ‘As of today.’
He leaned back on his heels, looking down the dark street. ‘I was planning to last year. You know, because I’d gotten into the U, and wanted to go to school. But then…’
I waited. Because with Eli, he was never trying to get you to finish for him. He always knew where he was going, even if it took a little while to get there.
‘… Abe died,’ he said. ‘And everything just stopped. But it wasn’t how I wanted to go out, just dropping off the map like that.’
‘You wanted to go out on top,’ I said.
‘Or at least try to.’ He reached up, pulling a hand through his hair. ‘So I’m sorry, about today. I wish I’d explained better why I said no.’
‘I understand,’ I told him. ‘It was just something you had to do.’
He looked at me, his eyes so dark. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’
A car was driving up to the light now, its headlights moving across us. They paused, their turn signal ticking, before moving past. Then Eli looked me up and down, taking in my dress and my flip-flops. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To the prom,’ I told him. ‘You?’
‘Same. Better late than never, right?’ he said. ‘Want a ride?’
I shook my head. He raised his eyebrows, opening his mouth to respond, but before he could I reached out, taking his hand, and pulled him closer to me. Then I stood on tiptoes, bringing my lips to his. The kiss was slow and sweet, and while it was happening, I had that image again of us so small, standing in the middle of Colby, under that stoplight, as the entire town and world turned around us. And in that moment, if only for that moment, we were right where we were supposed to be.
I smiled at him as I stepped back, then up on my pedals again. He turned slowly in a circle, watching me as I slowly rode around him, once, twice, three times, like casting a spell.
‘So you don’t want me to take you,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘But I’ll meet you there.’
The coffee in the Defriese cafeteria was good, but not great. It was covered by my meal plan, though, and the cups were bottomless. So I’d learned to like it just fine.
I fit a travel lid onto my jumbo cup, then pushed out onto the quad, pulling my backpack over my shoulder with my free hand. Now that it was October it was getting colder, a chill to the air that made a warm drink that much more necessary. I climbed onto my bike, balancing my cup with one hand as I carefully rode back across the empty campus to my dorm, a light drizzle starting to fall just as I pulled up at the rack outside. By the time I got to my room, I could hear the rain pinging off the windows.