This story is by D.M. Conte and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then her blue Schwinn bicycle was the vehicle to take her there. The foldable bicycle was an object of contention before she ever rode it. Her father had fought for it against the wishes of her mother, who didn’t want her to have it.
“She’s ten years old! She needs a bike!” he argued.
“It’s safer to walk,” countered her mother.
Earlier in the year, a boy down the street was hit by a car while on his bike, which left him lame.
“I’ll be careful, dad,” Michele pressed, “I promise.”
“I never got a bike!” barked Kaylee, who, at fifteen, was as guarded as Michele was adventurous.
“You never go anywhere,” Michele shrugged.
A week later, the blue folding bike showed up. Michele’s road to freedom was her parent’s road to strife, as was often the case. Fortunately for her, their quarrels were put on hold during family vacations.
Every year they would go camping with her parent’s friends Eddie, Maddie, and their teenage son, Bryan. For two weeks, the only fights they had were “chicken fights” in the pool. Michele rode past the playground and parked her bike outside the pool gate. Kaylee spent most of the vacation bikini-clad, slathering pink gloss on her lips while lying statuesquely on a beach towel.
“I’m still waterlogged… want to play tetherball?” asked Michele.
“You’re blocking my view,” Kaylee replied.
Michele followed her gaze to a group of teenage boys wrestling in the water.
“Why don’t you go ride your little bike,” she sneered.
“Tell mom and dad I’m out exploring,” Michele shouted, getting back on the road. Her bike was her refuge from being at an age in the middle.
The days passed quickly and on the last night, as the blips and bells of the game room quieted and the crowd dispersed, Michele was left to bicycle back to the campsite alone in the dark. The only illuminations were the scattered glow of campfires beginning their evening dance of disintegration. The rugged path wound through the pine trees, jolting the wheels of the bike, causing it to clank loudly. The culprit of the offensive noise was the pin that held the foldable crossbar in place; it loosened and clapped against the metal frame. As she reached down to push it back in, the bike veered off onto a pine-needle covered campsite. Flying blind, she felt a sharp whip across her forehead. She wrenched the handlebars towards the road two-seconds too late. The front wheel of the bike plowed hard into an immovable object and her body launched over the frame. She plowed into the ground her arms extended as if she were diving into a dirt pool.
“Hello?” she whimpered. This… is… bad, she thought.
She blinked hard in the silence. Her hands burned from stopping the slide, the taste of dirt in her mouth. And as she looked up, she realized she was halfway under a picnic table. The bike had folded in the impact, her leg was caught in between the chain, the wheel, and the wooden bench. It was pitch black and from what she could see, the section was deserted. She thought of yelling for help, but the idea of angering her mother this late in the trip was unfathomable. Her mind was spinning the disastrous scenarios.
“I knew it! She’s paralyzed!” her mother would wail.
“You promised,” he would say, unable to look at her for disappointment. “I trusted you.”
Or worst of all… “We’re getting a divorce… and it’s your fault.”
In her world of self-reliance, she realized she was helpless in her present situation, and that was almost unbearable. It’s over. My life is over.
The tickle started in her nose, then her eyes burned with warm salt water… No… crying is for quitters! Get a grip! She took a deep breath and looked up. A clearing in the trees revealed a sky littered with stars. And under the backdrop of celestial light, she could make out an isosceles triangle floating above her in space. Someone had left a clothesline tied between the trees. It may have well been Orion the hunter, the gash on her forehead felt like she crossed paths with an arrow. She lay there, stunned by the beauty and pain of the night. If she had to wait until morning to figure out how to get out of the mess, she would count stars and find constellations until she fell asleep. The crickets were singing in unison, a lullaby for the unfortunate.
After a few minutes, their song was broken by the sound of footsteps in the distance. She opened her eyes and saw a flashlight searching the grounds with two sets of feet in tow. The beam rose up and shined in her eyes. She put her hand in front of her face to block the light.
“Michele?” he called out.
“Oh geez, what the hell happened…” said Eddie.
“Hang on,” he said, “we’ll get you out.”
Eddie pulled the wheel out from between the table and bench while her father guided her leg out from the twisted chain. He grabbed her arms and pulled her out from under the table, then sat her down on the bench and inspected the wounds.
“Does anything feel broken?” he asked.
“No. It just stings bad,” replied Michele. She looked down to see her leg that took the slide was grazed causing it to bleed. Her palms were bleeding like raw hamburgers.
“You had us worried there, Michele… no one has seen you in over an hour,” said Eddie.
“Why weren’t you with your sister?” he asked.
“Kaylee walked home with Bryan,” Michele shrugged, “… they’re teenagers, dad.”
He pulled her in to wipe the dirt off her back- she hugged him hard, misreading his gesture.
“You okay to walk back?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I’ve got to find the pin from my bike, it came out…”
“I’ll take the bike to my camper, we’ll look at it tomorrow,” Eddie offered. He picked up the twisted wreckage and in the shadow of the flashlight, they walked silently.
“Some vacation, huh?” said Eddie, breaking the tension.
“One for the books,” he sighed.
“She’s gonna be okay,” Eddie said assuredly, motioning toward Michele.
“This one… she’s tough… takes chances… Kaylee is cautious, like her mother,” he replied.
Michele trailed behind them, watching the way both men had synchronized their steps. While her father was an average height, compared to Eddie, he seemed like a giant. He walked with assurance, as if every step were certain… his gate was as steady as the trees. She looked down at her own feet and tried to match step with him, walking almost in leaps to keep up. Being tough and keeping up were important to him. Three days earlier they went to Virginia Beach to sightsee and body surf in the ocean. Gray skies had darkened the coast and the waves were punishing, but weather or conditions were unimportant during the holidays, the vacation state of mind was all that mattered. He was as foot sure at the breakwater as he was on the darkened dirt path. He had invented a game he called “stand your ground” with her; they would stand at the break-line, dig their feet into the sand, and try to remain upright as the waves pummeled them into the beach. Every wave knocked her down, pushing her face first into the shell-covered shoreline. She sprang up quickly from the salted foam and looked at him, as if to say, “Did you see? Did you see that knocked me down but I’m back up?” She took a thousand pummeling’s to please him. As they neared the campsite, she looked up to see the pattern of the pine trees change again, the Big Dipper loomed prominently. She didn’t know about a ‘Father in heaven’ but understood the gauntlet of love she ran for her father on Earth.
“Sleep tight, Evil Knievel!” said Eddie as he pealed-off to his campsite.
Michele took Eddie’s place by his side. As they approached their site, he stopped and turned to her.
“I’m sorry, dad…” she blurted out.
“I don’t care about the bike,” he said, squeezing her small frame. “And neither does your mom.”
Michele sunk into his shoulder, overwhelmed in relief and sadness.
“I know mom’s mad,” she said, keeping the tears at bay.
“She worries more than you know…” he said.
Michele looked up and saw her mother sitting by the fire, waiting patiently for her to come home.
“I understand now.”
Michele walked over to her mother and showed her palms. “I’m sorry, mom.”
“It looks like we need band-aids, gauze…” her mother said softly, her eyes were glassy from crying, “and a new bike.”
Michele leaned into her mother’s embrace, anxious for nothing, the straight and narrow path was found under the tread of a bent, not broken, bicycle tire.