By Robert J Hudgens
Carson scavenges through a dump heap amassed on top of a wooded mountainside clearing, just before the mouth of an abandoned bikeway. A yellow sign riddled with shotgun pellets reads: Trail Closed. The muddy grey, empty bike path runs down the slope to the “haunted” Silver Lane Tunnel. Both routes have been prohibited for years—the tunnel at the Civil War’s conclusion and the bike trail, ever since the locals turned it into cocaine candy land.
Carson is supposed to meet Hannah by the dump, but since he showed up early he decides to explore the rusty stacks of washers, cars, refrigerators, and all sorts of metallic waste for something valuable he might pawn to get his mountain bike back.
“You gonna grill me something special with that?” comes Hannah’s voice. Carson turns around, a spatula he pulled out of the mass in hand.
“Hey,” he says, a little embarrassed, “I’d actually like to take you out for drinks, but-” he starts making ax swings with the spatula, “-I’m a minor.”
Hannah starts laughing against her bike in those tight denim shorts she’d been wearing ever since she broke up with Michael. Carson’s had a deep crush on her throughout school. She’s one of the few who laugh at his jokes. His jests are meant to hide his low self-esteem, but too many classmates still think him desperate, that his antics stink worse than the frayed olive jacket he wears. They’d give him endless crap if they heard this outdoor-loving woman had to ask him out.
“Where’s your bike?” Hannah asks, brushing back her dirty blond hair.
“It got a flat tire,” Carson lies. He doesn’t have a bike anymore; his father sold it. Old man got laid off from his coal mining trade when it became public knowledge he’d been drilling under the influence of coke. Carson expected his mother to step in and set things straight when she heard, like mothers do, but his father gave her a taste, and she stopped going in to work herself.
They used the money from selling whatever was at the house to buy more bags of powder. It got so bad they hardly knew Carson was living there anymore. He could be halfway to Kazakhstan and they wouldn’t care. Damn, he missed that bike.
Hannah pats the handlebars, says, “Hop on, then.”
They cut through mountain air, cycling down that aromatic trail. The speed is so fast Carson feels high on life, emboldened enough to slice away, with the spatula, dry tree branches that have grown above the path in their way.
“My valiant champion,” Hannah says as they coast to a stop in front of the Silver Lane Tunnel. “You sure we should stay here?”
“It’s the only place the cops won’t scope out at night,” Carson replies. He should know. His parents used it as a shelter whenever their trips through candy land took too long. “And if any ghosts come our way, I’ll fight ‘em off with this silver saber.”
“You mean stainless steel,” Hannah replies.
“Eh, I prefer silver,” Carson says, winking.
Hannah takes off her backpack and unfolds a sleeping bag, among other things. Carson’s not sure how he didn’t pick up on this, but Hannah’s got a lot packed in that North Face: sets of spare clothes, multiple cans of food, bug repellents, and a GPS device. That’s too much for one night down a bicycle trail.
Darkness settles in, and the two eat sandwiches around some camping lanterns. Cheap beer fresh out of a portable cooler loosens their tongues, and they make out for a while before Carson sees the bruises lined up on Hannah’s arms. How did he not notice those either?
“Did Michael do that?” he asks.
Hannah taps at her beer bottle. “No, it was my mom.”
Carson turns silent, so she continues, “Dad did it to her first, didn’t even need a drink to get going. He’d just come home from work, spit rage in her face, and hit her. Then mom would take it out on me. Kinda like what Hera did to Zeus’s bastards, ya know, from Greek mythology? Whenever she needed to vent her rage?”
“One more thing,” Hannah says, “I won’t be at school when our sophomore year starts.”
“Why not?” Carson asks.
“I’m leaving this side of the Shenandoah River to stay with a friend. Everything I brought with me, I stole from the folks.”
“Well, wait, will you be in touch?”
Hannah glances from Carson to her supplies, then back his way. She moves close and, after caressing his ruffled hair, gently pushes him down. Her belly presses on top of his, exchanging body heat, and she licks his mouth, whispering, “Probably not.”
Carson understands and takes the initiative. They make love. It’s his first time and he’s afraid of hurting her, but Hannah smiles and assures him she enjoyed it.
Before they go to bed, Carson gains enough trust in her to reveal what happened to his bike. She yawns and asks him to lighten things up again with something funny; it was such a sad tale.
“I love you,” he says.
“That’s not funny,” she replies, drifting off.
Tomorrow Carson will wake up alone in that tunnel and get angry. But before he pitches the spatula against the wall, he’ll notice the roll of bills tied by a rubber band around the handle. A note will read, “Love you, too. Your next bike is on me.”
Years later he’ll see Hannah again, off in the distance from another bicycle trail’s end. She’ll be drinking red wine with her partner on a freshly painted cabin porch. The couple will kiss each other, and Carson will feel hollow watching. Then he’ll put the very same spatula he found on their date in her mailbox with a note reading, “Your favorite knight,” before pedaling off, wondering whether or not she’ll get the joke.