The Cursed Bicycle
“Did you hear?” asked Cuttington, “they’ve finally finished that trans-Alaska train project- The Barrow Express. Some lucky visitors will be able to use it tomorrow.”
Across from him, Keith snorted. “Well, yeah, it’s not going to be any of us, is it? Probably some rich government bloke, just like last time, with that sight-seeing monorail.”
His friend rolled his eyes. “Don’t be such a wet blanket, ‘Eith. We did get to use the monorail a fair couple of times, didn’t we? And besides, it’s your birthday tomorrow. Lighten up or you’re going to put out the candles before the party even begins.”
“Par’y again?” slurred a third voice, “An’ I expe’ to be the uhn’ to ‘uy all de ‘rinks?”
Cuttington gazed irately at the slumped form at the far end of the table. “Any drinks, Tom, and you would glug them all down like the ocean swallowing a sailor”.
A deep, rather throbbing chuckle, like the calling of a bullfrog, resonated from the ragged shape. Then came loud, wet snoring. Tom had fallen back into the drunken stupor from which he had briefly emerged.
Across the table, Keith glared at the slumbering form slumped on the battered mahogany. He opened his mouth to spit out some loud and probably scathing comment, but Cuttington, sensing it like the way a frog senses a fly, cut him short. “Let it go man. He’s had a rough day.” Keith snorted. “That’s what you always say for him. Honestly, if he actually tried to quit drinking, I’m sure he’d succeed sooner or later”.
The defender raised an eyebrow. “And you and your endless obsession with bikes? That’s hardly-” “How are you supposed to compare biking to drinking?” Keith shot back hotly, “one’s honest-to-God unhealthy, the other’s just a hobby…it certainly doesn’t risk you getting badly sick every morning on your friend’s new rug.”
Cuttington’s pale eyes held a hint of irritancy, but he said nothing of it. Blinking out the flicker of annoyance, he half-jokingly said, “You should head back home. It’s getting late, and we don’t want you abducted before your birthday. Besides, Tom and I have gotten a surprise for you.” “What is it? I suppose it’s a book like last time? I appreciate your way of telling me, but I really do not need another book on personal hygiene and shaving correctly next time Stella comes over-” His muttered words were cut short as the wooden door closed behind him.
The conscious member of the remaining duo looked around him and sighed. Tom was still fast asleep; a mop of ragged brown hair hiding part of his face, and his thick, meaty hands concealing the rest.
There was a creak at the doorknob, and Keith popped in again, and said “and don’t buy me jeans again. The last time you bought them, the only thing that they could have fit on was a heron”. And he shut the door.
Cuttington shrugged, more or less to himself. He was wondering what he should really buy his friend. The book was a joke, suggested by Tom. The jeans were a sort of mistake, but Cuttington has never had the heart to admit it, as Keith had seemed to like them, despite what he said. He knew he had promised to help his friend find something, but he honestly couldn’t think of anything particularly suited for Keith, and yet still cost something that Cuttington could afford.
Tom grunted, shifted heavily in the corner, and let loose a great burp like a tidal wave, laden with the heavy aroma of alcohol. Cuttington waved at the air in front of his face glared at the inanimate form of his friend. “You’re not helping”.
While his friend was debating on what to get him, Keith was whistling quietly as he walked back to his place. On the way, he passed the tracks of the trans-Alaska railway that Cuttington had talked about earlier. Unlike the old monorail and the cargo trains at Forthmouth Junction, there was no barrier around these tracks. Keith stepped across a pile of stones beside the railroad, and bent down to admire the nice, silver gleam of the tracks. The glistening light of the moon shone down on the railroad, giving it an almost ethereal appearance. Keith had always thought it odd that his birthday coincided with the day of the full moon, but over the years, he had grown to appreciate the glowing silver orb that had always been there for him, even when others had not. Ever since his parents died in a fatal car accident on a rainy evening, he had never felt that many things stayed with him for long. He felt bad about snapping at Cuttington, but Tom really would get better if he stopped drinking. He shook his head, irritated by himself. It’s Tom’s problem, not yours, he chided himself, why do you go dabbling around in his business? You’re worse than the prom queens back at Leadworth High. He shrugged to himself, stood up, and resuming his whistling, continued on his way home.
The next day, and the sun shone feebly through the low clouds. A dull-green tree, a scarlet fire hydrant, or splashes of multicolored graffiti punctured the slate grey of the streets. The crisp, sharp smell of someone’s barbeque wafted in the breeze, and the bitter, electric tinge of ozone forecasted a coming rainstorm. Cuttington gazed anxiously up at the dark clouds. It was just what he needed, a rainstorm for the party. Tom would probably just fling it over his back, but rain or any sort of bad weather had always made Keith rather nervous. Cuttington had always been rather curious as to why, but Keith had always gotten snappy or clammed up when he had asked. He tapped his fingers nervously on the covering of Keith’s present. It was very large, and Cuttington had leaned against a fire hydrant to prevent it from falling. Tom leaned against a steel bike rack a few meters away. He had gotten over his hangover and headache surprisingly quickly, but didn’t seem keen to talk. Leaning in his dark shirt and hoodie, he looked almost menacing, though both Cuttington and Keith knew him to be a very nice guy when he was sober, if not somewhat prone to sarcasm. Cuttington ran his fingers through his coarse hair, pacing up and down. When’s Keith going to arrive? He’s normally not late. Sure enough, Tom gestured, waving his arm at someone over Cuttington’s shoulder. He turned around, and sure enough, came the birthday boy.
“What’s that you got there?” asked Keith curiously, poking the covering of the present with his finger. Tom, at a cue from Cuttington, came and revealed it to be a beautiful silver racing bike, one of the best-looking Keith had ever seen. It was gleaming with shiny newness, and the long lines of its handles and stand were gracefully curved. Its wheels were quite large, with dozens of tiny slate-grey spokes, each linked back in perfect lines to the center of the wheel. Keith’s eyes grew as round as tangerines, and he marveled at the beautiful bicycle. “This is amazing, you guys! Thanks! But where’d you get it?”
Cuttington grinned, but fiddled a bit with his hands. “At the nearby sports department, of course. They had it on sale. Tom and I combined our allowances, and we spent roughly 400 on this guy” he said, patting the bicycle’s handles.
Keith made a hollow hissing noise in his throat “four hundred? You guys shouldn’t have! What a beautiful bike, look at those handles, that black mold…”
Tom, in his corner, had said nothing. Most of his dark eye concealed his eyes, both as green as the sea. Many people had said that his eyes were the only beautiful part of him. Whether they were joking or serious, Tom always laughed it off good-naturedly. Now, however, his eyes were brooding. He knew why he and Cuttington had managed to get the bike for such a cheap price. Keith, too preoccupied with profusely thanking Cuttington and admiring the bike, had neglected to notice that four hundred was remarkably cheap, especially for such a good racing bike. In fact, Cuttington had found it at the local junk shop, a decrepit place called the Black Rose. There, the shopkeeper had put the gleaming bicycle on the window spot, a ‘special emphasis’ only occupied twice before; once by a giant tin man, and the other a live parrot, which squawked and flew in his glass prison. This time, however, it was the bike. How Cuttington and himself were so excited, at first, Tom had thought. But their smiles faded as the shopkeeper had told them why he of all people had it, and why it was so cheap.
The racing bike, the shopkeeper was said, was cursed. It was why he himself had never used it, nor let any of us family and friends use it. He then listed a list of gruesome injuries that were inflicted upon the bike’s riders: a young French boy, crashing into a wall, had broken his arm, and twisted it backwards. A visiting tourist had fallen off the bike, and rolled into a nearby reservoir, and broken several joints and sustained numerous cuts on the way down. A Chinese lady had almost been run over by a car whilst riding it out in the country. Time and time again had the bike been returned to the sports shop where it was from, until it finally ended up, with its curse presumably still attached, at the Black Rose.
Against the shopkeeper’s advice, Cuttington had bought it. He was a serious, quiet man, and had none of the superstition of some others in the neighborhood. There are only two things you must believe in, he had sometimes said, God and reality. There are no ghosts, no forces, no whatever. Only the Father and reality, and that is all.
As Tom was reviewing the events of the morning, however, Keith had finally finished lavishing praises on the bike, Cuttington, Tom, and whatever place they had gotten the bike from. He hopped on a cautiously, even tenderly, pushed the pedal under his foot. The bike moved very slightly. He then pushed it energetically, and the bike shot forward briefly. Whooping, he pedaled forward, around and around, in circles on the empty road. He wove through gaps between cars, around a nearby tree, and swerved around a stubby fire hydrant. He shouted in exhilaration, waving both arms in the air as the bike went speeding down a hill. He then executed a sharp turn, as fast as a falcon changes directions in the air. He sped back up the slope and panted, exhilarated, holding on to a nearby lamppost for support. He grinned broadly at Cuttington and Tom, and hopped back onto the bike. He pedaled a bit, then turned back, and waved at them to come over. They did so, Tom stumbling a bit as he left the support of his wall.
“You guys want to race?”
The wind whipped against Keith’s face as he tirelessly pumped the pedals of the bicycle under his feet. He sped ahead of his friends, heading down the deserted road. Behind him, Cuttington was pedaling hard, while Tom was slightly behind, maneuvering with a deliberately slow and rather loping pace. Keith sped ahead of his friends. He was pumping his legs furiously, sweat dripping down from his ragged straw-colored hair. Beside him, the scenery all melted together as he sped down the lonely road; fire hydrants zipping away in flashes of scarlet, trees in bursts of pale green, and burst after burst of graffiti-covered wall.
He laughed in exhilaration. This was the fastest he had ever ridden, the best he had ever ridden. He braked, sped, turned, all in a manner of perfection to match that of an Olympic cycler. All too soon, the sun was going down. The light of day was slowly being sucked away by that leech of the sky, the darkness. A hazy sunset spread over the forest far to the west. Cuttington and Tom had stopped, clutching stiches in their chests. They gazed up at the dying sun, then at Keith, still zipping around up ahead. They sighed, knowing that there was no way their friend would abandon more time using the bike for the simple reason of nightfall. They shouted farewells at him, turned around, and cycled slowly back to the town.
Keith did not hear their goodbyes. Such was his immense joy that the only thing he seemed to be able to hear was the wind snapping and flapping in his hair, and the zizzing of the chain of the bicycle as it sped across the dark pavement.
The sun was completely gone now. A quiet darkness had already descended on the town and the nearby rural areas. Too bad then, Keith thought disappointedly, if I could see four inches in front of me, I would have ridden this bike to Finland and back. He turned in a circle, and started on the way back. I must really thank Cutting and Tom for this, he thought cheerily, what a great bike this is. Best birthday ever. I should apologize to them, too, for being so harsh…he felt guilty now. He hadn’t been so kind to Tom and Cuttington lately. And yet they had gotten him this great new gift… With a clouded mind, he cycled home, finding some enjoyment in the cool night breeze that blew onto his face, the glow of the streetlamps far above him, and the two fireflies that flew in tandem to his far left-
He blinked. The two lights he had thought were fireflies were, as he know saw, two bright lights from some sort of vehicle. What could they be? Then he laughed. It was his friends of course! The lights on their bikes must have been on. “Wait up!” he called, “wait up!”
There was no reply.
He frowned. “They must not have heard me.” He then laughed again. “All the better. With this fast bike, I can play a prank I haven’t been able to play for ages!”
He pumped the pedals fast, and sped, sped, sped up to the lights, heading for dark area in between them. They were, as he knew, the lights of his friends’ two bikes. He would quietly, but swiftly, come up between them, and give them a nice good scare. The lights were getting closer. He narrowed his eyes, ready to give the final burst that would bring him between Cuttington and Tom. But then he frowned. The lights were coming toward him, too. Were they riding backwards? He furrowed his brow, wondering what it was that they were doing. Were they trying to prank him as well?
Or was it-?
He never finished the thought, for at that moment, he found from what vehicle the lights were cast. And he screamed.
The Barrow Express bore down upon him.