When we’re kids, we all believe to be invincible, immortal even. My friends and I were no different.
We all thought we were at the center of the universe. We had high aspirations, wanting to be scientists, doctors or astronauts.
I was the only one to ever get close to any of those dreams.
Not in that sense, of course. I’m the owner of my small town’s only bike store. It’s ironic, really…
It was summer, and the heat was terrible, but I still busied my old bones around the store. While I was cleaning, I noticed a group of three young boys outside. The moment I saw them, I couldn’t help but smile.
They’d gathered in front of the store, but they weren’t checking out the shiny new bikes. No, what had caught their attention was a special bike, one that I’d propped up right next to the entrance.
It was a rusty old piece of junk, almost as old as me, but over the years it had become a staple of the store.
As I made my way outside, I could already hear their high-pitched voices echoing through the air.
“Just look how old it is,” one of them laughed.
“It’s all rusty and broken,” another one added.
“I bet if you sit on it, it breaks apart right away,” the last one chimed in, barely able to contain his laughter.
“Now what are you boys laughing at?” I called out to them.
They all turned to me and I found myself at the center of their attention.
“Why are you keeping this thing around, old man? No one’s going to buy it, anyway!”
“Oh, I know, I know, this old thing here’s not for sale,” I answered.
“Then why’s it here? People will think all you sell is useless junk!”
With that, all three of them burst out laughing again.
Before I got the chance to retort anything, they all jumped on their bikes and raced away.
“Be careful now, boys,” I called after them, but I knew they wouldn’t listen to me. They never did.
As I stared after them and watched how they vanished down the road, I couldn’t help but feel like a little boy again.
Back in the day, long decades ago, I was always riding my bike. There was no internet back then, no home entertainment and our town didn’t have an arcade. So, all we did was to play outside and ride our bikes.
There were four of us, me and my three best friends: buck toothed Joey, chubby Marcus and scared little Andrew, or Scardy Andy, as we called him.
We were young, and we were invincible, immortal even, and we did many crazy things on our bike.
We’d ride downhill with our arms high in the air, we’d tease people while rushing past them and we’d jump over the heaps of trash at Old Terrance’s scrapyard.
Joey was the craziest of us and our self-proclaimed leader. He was a whirlwind of a boy and always came up with new shenanigans and crazy things to do.
It might have been because of his home situation. Joey’s mom was poor, barely able to scrape by, and a fair share of rumors about her source of money were going around.
Joey’s bike was a mess, a rag-tag piece he’d ‘tuned’ with various parts he’d found around town or stolen from Old Terrane’s scrapyard. His bell was the absolute worst. It wouldn’t ring, but make this strange scraping sound, but was still louder than any other bell I ever heard.
He always had his head in the clouds and had more dreams than the rest of us combined. Each week, he wanted to do or become something else. One week, he wanted to be a scientist, the next an explorer, and the week after the big boss at our town’s only factory.
That summer, though, Joey wanted to be like Mitch.
Mitch was our town’s troublemaker. He was the type who went to school only when he wanted, hit on all the girls, had been in more fights at fifteen than anyone else and could always get you booze.
He was the personification of a bad boy, someone who didn’t play by the rules. Joly looked up to him immensely.
During summer break, all Joey did was to try to prove that he was as cool as Mitch, imitating many of the crazy and cool things Mitch had done.
That summer, we did a lot of stupid things, dangerous things even, all because Joey wanted to impress Mitch.
But, what can I say, as much as Joey looked up to Mitch, we looked up to Joey.
One thing that Mitch did was to ride down the steep and forbid Severin’s Hill on his bike at full speed. And of course, Joey wanted to do that same thing as well.
Severin’s Hill was a large hill at the edge of our small town. There was a single, steep road that led downwards, almost too steep to be driven on. It continued down the entire hill before it led into a small, forested gorge.
It was a treacherous road, one that even cars were wary of in poor weather and it was off-limits to us kids and our bikes.
And yet, Mitch had descended it, screaming, taking his hands off the handlebar, going as fast as he could.
I later learned that he was lying. Of course he was. People like Mitch always lie. But back then, we didn’t know, and all the kids in town were in awe of what he’d supposedly done.
It was only natural that Joey had to drive down Severin’s Hill, too.
One day, after teasing old Terrance for a while, Joey led us to Severin’s Hill. After checking that no one was around, we made our way to the top.
It was summer, a hot summer, and pushing our bikes up the side of the hill was hard. Even now, I remember arriving at the top, wheezing and panting, coated in sweat.
“Why are we up here?” I asked, already expecting the worst.
“Because,” Joey started, pushing his arms to his hips. “We’re going to go down Severin’s Hill!”
There it was, I thought.
“But, my mom says we’re not allowed to,” Scardy Andy spoke up.
“Yeah, I heard it’s really dangerous,” Marcus added.
“You’re all a bunch of babies! It’s going to be awesome! Mitch did it all the time, and if he did it, we’re going to do it too!”
He said it with such enthusiasm, it was hard not to get at least a little excited.
“What if,” I was about to start, but Joey didn’t let me voice my doubts.
“We’re going to be legends, just like Mitch!”
While Marcus, Scardy Andy and I looked at each other, Joey was already pushing his bike to the steep road that led down the hill.
It wasn’t long before we all got our bikes and joined him, staring down the seemingly endless road before it vanished between the trees of the small grove.
I felt anxious as I got onto my bike, but fear didn’t seem to exist for Joey. He was all pumped. His eyes were wide open and glowing with excitement.
He was mumbling and nodding to himself as he stared down. I caught the words ‘if Mitch did it,’ from his mumblings.
Then, he jumped on his bike and hit the pedals.
“Well guys, this is it, let’s make history!” he called out as he sped down.
For a few seconds we looked at each other, unsure what to do, but we all knew Joey would never let it go if we didn’t go along with him.
I heard Marcus gulp before he rushed after him. Before I knew it, I was on my bike as well, speeding down after them. Scardy Andy followed soon after.
The feeling of speeding down the hill, the feeling of getting faster and faster, was amazing. The adrenalin pumping through my veins differed from anything I ever felt before. As my small bike rushed down the road, I couldn’t help but scream and yell in excitement. Faster and faster I became, rushing over the hot asphalt, hitting my pedals harder and harder.
Suddenly, something hit me in the eye. A bug, a damn bug, and crashed right into it. For a moment I was blind. Fear washed over me. I was terrified, and I hit the brakes to stop my bike.
While I rubbed my eye, trying to get my vision back, I heard Joey calling out to me from ahead, and soon Marcus and Scardy Andy rushed past me, laughing.
They were all screaming as they continued their descent, leaving me behind.
I was cursing, almost crying. They thought I was scared, had pussied out, and now they’d lever it go! In my anger, I jumped back on my bike and was about to rush after them.
From where I was, I could see them as they raced down the road. As I drove on, though, I saw the small gorge, the forest around it and something my friends didn’t see.
To the right side of the road, hidden behind the trees, a tractor was on his way towards the road via an old dirt path. The road my friends were speeding down on.
I screamed, called out to them, but they were too far away, too absorbed in their adrenalin-fueled descent. I sped after them, down towards the forestry gorge. But of course, I was too late.
I heard it before I saw it, three loud bangs and the grinding of metal. As I slowed down and got closer, I could finally see it. The tractor, the bikes, and the blood.
The driver was already outside, screaming, lamenting, crying.
He hadn’t seen them neither. They were hidden behind the trees and he hadn’t expected that anyone would ride down Severin’s Hill like they did.
It was nothing but chance, nothing but a stupid chance. They’d all crashed into the side of the tractor and they’d all died almost instantly.
My friends thought they were invincible, immortal even, but in the blink of an eye, reality caught up with them and sniffed their lives out forever.
And I, I’d have been with them. The only reason I survived, the only reason I’m still here, is because of that bug that got in my eye. Another chance encounter, one that also took my invincibility away because that day I learned just how feeble life truly is.
After that day, I never road my bike again, I couldn’t. But I never gave that bike away, even when my parents wanted to sell or get rid of it.
After I’d finished high school, and out of options, I took a summer job at the bike store in our small town.
Before long, a summer job turned into a steady one. My dreams and aspirations ebbed away and when the old owner retired, it was only natural for me to take over.
Even then, I still kept my old bike. I couldn’t dare give it away. It was the only memory I had of my friends and the days I spent with them. And so, once the store fell into my hands, I put it up at the store.
I don’t remember when they first showed up, those three little boys.
They’d be marveling at the new expensive bikes, but most of the time they were joking about my rusty old one.
“Why’s that old, dirty bike here anyway, old man?”
“You should throw it away already!”
And many times I’d tell them why it was still here.
“Oh, but that’s my bike, boys. I can’t just throw it away,” I’d answer, smiling.
“That old thing? It’s going to break down the moment you move it!”
“Yeah, and it’s not made for adults like you, anyway!”
“I know, I know, but perhaps, one day, I’ll ride it again,” I’d add.
“Yeah, as if, old man! Let’s go guys,” the leader of the group would call out.
He was a buck toothed little boy, and he’d race away, hitting his old, scraping bell, the loudest bell I ever heard.
Whenever they’d vanish down the road, I’d step up to my old, rusty bike, caressing the handlebar. Maybe one day, I’d ride it again.
Maybe one day, I’d ride with them again.