I’ve always loved being outdoors—I think it’s a requirement when you live in Colorado—but I never imagined how much I’d come to crave being “one with the dirt,” as Evan likes to say. A lot of boarders and skiers ride when there’s no snow but with Brianna leading the way, I’d never gotten into this scene.
Now I’m grateful for it.
I flex my forearms as we crest the first incline, letting gravity pull me downhill. Evan’s far enough ahead that I won’t run him over if he crashes—another thing I’m still getting used to. When I ski, I never take chances so there’s no risk of falling, but careening through the woods while balanced on two rubber tubes kind of guarantees you’re gonna fall.
The wall of trees thickens. I squeeze the brakes to slow down but don’t sit. That’s another thing I’ve learned: the seat’s pretty much there to stop the bike from impaling you. It’s not for sitting—at least not on hills.
Sunlight streams through an opening far above, highlighting a gnarly root jutting from the side of the narrow trail. I pull up on the handlebars and smile when my front wheel safely clears the twisted wood.
“Hook left!” Evan’s voice carries up to me.
A wall of trees lies straight ahead. I’d probably slam into them without his warning. I test the brakes and ease into the turn, leaning left like he taught me. My stomach flutters like I’m on the big drop on a roller coaster. A tiny piece of me is still afraid I’m going to tip over if I lean too far, but I do it anyways. My arms shake as I bounce over the uneven trail, the vibrations rattling my teeth, but I don’t fall. When the path straightens, a smile spreads over my face. Evan could do this trail in his sleep but I’m still shocked any time I make it through a turn unscathed.
His bright green shirt flashes through the trees ahead of me. I pedal to gain speed and force myself to take slow, steady breaths. Being able to see him helps me navigate the turns because I know what to expect, but I still need to watch the ground. Riding requires split focus—way more than skiing—because the kind people at the ski resorts clear stumps and rocks from the runs.
When I see him stopped at the edge of the trail my whole body relaxes.
“Need a break?” he asks.
I don’t, but he’s already stopped so I rest a foot on the ground, the other still on the pedal, and grab my water bottle from the crossbar. “Just for a sec.”
“You’re doing great, Mike. I hope you know that—”
A whoop from up the trail where we just were makes us both turn. Flashes of orange and yellow fly through the trees and in seconds two bikers skid to a stop next to us. They both drop a foot to the ground, smiles plastered to their mud-streaked faces. There’s so much dirt it’s hard to tell skin or hair color. With the exception of their neon shirts, they’re brown from head to toe.
The guy in yellow nods at Evan. “Gorgeous day, huh?”
Mr. Orange nods at me. “Y’all okay?” A couple day’s worth of stubble peeks through the mud, making him look older than his friend.
Evan and I say, “Yeah,” in unison.
“Just taking a quick break,” Evan adds.
“I’m Topher,” says Yellow Guy.
I lift a hand in a wave. “Mike.”
“No, shit?” Topher says.
I’m used to getting weird reactions about my name, so I just shrug.
Topher nudges Mr. Orange, who glances at the ground before saying, “Mica.”
Topher doubles over laughing, but the rest of us just smile. A name is a name. It’s not like I haven’t met fifty billion Mikes before.
But either Mica’s never met a girl named Mike or he doesn’t handle teasing well, because the tips of his ears turn red beneath his helmet.
I flick my thumb over the lever for my brake. Evan clears his throat. And poor Mica shifts his weight from one foot to the other as his friend slowly realizes no one else is laughing.
Topher pushes his shoulders back and nods up the trail. “Haven’t seen you before.”
Evan smiles at me. “It took me a while to convince her.”
There’s so much unsaid in that statement—me choosing him over Brianna, finally learning to ride—and the warmth that usually spreads through me when he says things like that turns to irritation. Like I’d never consider riding without his permission.
Topher doesn’t seem to notice my mood shift. He clicks his brake gear back and forth. “You enter the Pow Cross?”
The spell breaks and I whip my head at him. “Pow Cross?”
Mica finally finds his voice, and I’m startled at how it’s both smooth and rumbly at the same time, like it’s coming from deep in his chest. “It’s a big race at the end of the season. There’s categories for all levels so you”—his eyes meet mine for a millisecond, then flick to Evan—“can enter even if you’re a beginner.”
Evan’s face lights up. On the competitiveness scale, he’s below Cally but definitely above me, and I can already tell he wants to do it. “Where do we sign up?”
I hold up a hand and Topher quirks an eyebrow. “Why pow? Isn’t that snow?”
Topher grips his handlebars like that’s all that’s keeping him from bouncing out of his skin. “Technically, there’s pow—snow—and brown pow,” he points at the dirt beneath us, “but this race is so late in the season there’s usually snow.”
“Biking in snow?”
Mica grins. “It’s pretty rad.”
“It sounds cold.”
“You’ve got gear that’ll work.” Evan leans toward me and runs his hand down my arm. For a split second it feels like he’s marking his property, but Evan’s not like that. And besides, these guys are older. Mica practically has a beard. We’re just a couple kids and they’re being nice. He turns to Topher. “Thanks, man. We’ll check it out.”
Topher hops off his bike to fist bump Evan, then me. “Sweet.” Then he’s back on his bike and heading down the trail. “See ya!”
Mica rests a foot on his pedal. “It’s a cold race, but it’s awesome. Think about it.” He catches my eye and holds my gaze for a beat, then is back on his bike and pedaling away.
Evan faces me. “What do you think?”
My mind follows Mica and his piercing gaze down the trail. We barely made eye contact but it’s like he saw right through me. What’s that about? I shake the thought away.
“You’re not even gonna consider it?”
“What? Oh.” He took my head shake as a no to his question. I smile, but it feels forced. “Yeah, I’ll think about it. It sounds fun.”
He squeezes my arm. “That’s all it would be. Fun. No pressure.”
If Evan thinks I should, I probably will.
“You ready?” I nod, and he mounts his bike and takes off after Topher and Mica.
I feel unsteady, but for once it’s not because of my lack of riding skills. I’m not sure what just happened, and I don’t like the tiny part of me that hopes we catch up to them.
Multi-award winning young adult author Melanie Hooyenga first started writing as a teenager and finds she still relates best to that age group. She has lived in Washington DC, Chicago, and Mexico, but has finally settled down in her home state of Michigan. When not at her day job as a Communications Director at a nonprofit, you can find Melanie attempting to wrangle her Miniature Schnauzer Owen and playing every sport imaginable with her husband Jeremy.
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