Lightning charges the sky. My small dog is pitifully smaller cowering behind the toilet, trembling and afraid of the thunder. Three weeks since my last ride, and so much pain and suffering in those weeks they deserve their own name, a season of ugliness. The Dark Time. The Wickedness.
And yet, that is the way of war, that suffering falls hard on the innocent and yet you balance your grieving with the need to fill sandbags and fortify your redoubt against the next attacking wave. Carelessness comes sneaking on the western flank as ignorance attacks head on in its stupid stumbling.
Mars hangs low on the horizon, directing the assault and supervising disruption and destruction as I drive south through the storm unaware that my shoes are not in the back with my helmet. I park last in the line as riders are marshaling towards the edge of the forest. The rain stops and a blanket of steam rises above our heads. I accept a too big pair of shoes, pump a bit of air in my tires and fall in.
Last week in Orlando a fire alarm goes off just before midnight. I am lying wide awake in sweat when it happens so I am standing in the 10th floor hallway in the time it takes to find my flip flops. I board the glass elevator alone and begin the descent, picking up scared passengers at each floor. By the third floor we are packed, and a woman is crying in panic. “We’re going to be OK,” I tell her.
So it is a lie, but the type of lie that gives a little courage in the moment, just a breath of courage to get you to the next moment, and one more breath to the next until you get there, to a place where you are safe. A recorded voice, sickly sweet and calm tells us not to use the elevator. I invite others to join me on the stairs, one man looks me in the eyes. Nobody moves or says a word. I get off by myself and walk down the concrete stairwell. Firefighters march into the lobby calmly, passing the word that it is a false alarm caused by the broken air-conditioning. I sit with the panicked woman and her husband. She can’t breathe between her sobs.
The forest floor is charred black from fire, so the normally thick tangle of green is gone, exposing us to Mars who can now take his time with us. Filtering towards the front my stale legs are warming, and I think I may not have lost as much as I thought. Two riders are just beyond my reach, but I see them dismount for a log and calculate that if I stay in the saddle I will be on them in seconds. I pull up and throw my bike forward, then I am in the air, legs above my head flying and then down, snarled in a brown weave of dead under-story. I am dizzy, but unhurt, and Bill pulls my bike from the net of vines and sees me back into the saddle. I fall way back as the adrenaline fades leaving me spent.
An old man I know sits in his old man chair listening to the music of his years through stereo headphones. His finger taps the air directing the clave. His brow delights and furrows as he critiques each note. He is not in a hurry, the count is one, two, three, four, FIVE, one, two, three, four, FIVE and the song must arrive at each note with a precise urgency, but not hurry. He is a bass player, and only he can resolve the tune and let the final note ring out.
Mars you bastard. Randy’s tire explodes and I think the roasting ground has melted it, but it is a broken bottle with a message in it that has floated so far into the woods. The message reads, “You must stop here.”
Again, there is Bill, assisting and teaching in a soothing voice. “Let’s patch the breech and re-inflate it, not too much.” A CO2 cartridge kicks back and slams Randy’s thumb into the teeth of his gears drawing blood that seeps around his nail. He doesn’t stop working, just grimly dressing the wound to the tire while his own wound flows red. The rest of us impatiently watch him bleed, eager to be moving. Off we go. This ride is cursed, yet in some ways also blessed. This ride has become real life, not just play. I look at the strangers around me and begin to see actual faces and hear their unique voices instead of seeing them all as just them.
The sky is unquestionably turning to night, and Mars rises red over the power lines. A gray Lincoln Town Car sits buried to the frame in sand, its wheels spinning freely like a turtle paddling its legs upside down and helpless. A young woman, stress thin, sits slumped over the steering wheel of her mama’s car mewling into her phone, trying to recruit her ex-lover to come save her, despite their earlier fight. We want to help her, but she ain’t leaving. She has chosen her spot to make her stand, and hey, I can relate. We ride on.
Our platoon of riders now broken into squads, I let my guard down. Surely this is the final stretch and I have the legs to keep up. The four of us halt in a clearing and Bill looks up and says, “That must be Mars. Maybe that’s why this night is so weird.” There are no other lights in the sky, and no distractions between Mars and ourselves. We have no choice but to run for it.
Randy’s chain is skipping. I hear him cursing an oath behind me as the other two riders drift away and out of earshot. We can’t see the trail, and we don’t know it anyway, so it comes down to dead reckoning. We find them again, but Randy and I choose the open ground and light over a sure guide through darkness. The ride out is longer than expected, and we are unsure if we have made the right decisions. We call for extraction, but beat the chopper home.