Steve stumbles against Meyer’s tank like, unsteady weight as they step out into the cool, night air. Even in August, the temperature dips low enough at night to require a jacket. But they have the headiness of hours of beer drinking and cajoling to keep them warm.
It’s Steve’s birthday but he’s nowhere near the drunkest. The five of them should have taken the bus home hours ago, but now it’s too late to put their bikes on the bus rack. After dark, you have to leave your bike or ride it home, the buses don’t allow them on the racks after sunset. The moon has risen, giant and yellow, between two mountain peaks. The effect is stage like, making the mountains a silhouetted cardboard back drop, prom stars hung in the sky for ambiance. Add together the sky and the beer and the fun and the friends: and they are invincible.
“So you guys want to leave our bikes here and take the bus or ride home?” Mike asks.
“Let’s go to the Moose when we get to Frisco.” Meyers slurs.
“We have to get there first, dumbass.”
“Shh. Chill out, man.” Mike tries to quiet his friends whose hearing abilities seem to have stayed in the bar.
“I just got this bike from the shop where my buddy works. He got me a pro form deal so it only cost me $2000 but it’s worth $5000. No way am I leaving it for some slumming snowboarder to steal.” Rather than simply remove the front wheel and chain it with the rest of the bike, he’s spent the evening dragging it around the bar and now gestures with it making his case.
Decision made, the group heads across Copper Mountain’s newly paved sidewalks passing dark-wooded Bavarian awnings and giant Adirondack chairs, toward the bikes. The five mount their bikes, some taking multiple starts to right themselves and their balance before heading to the stoplight at the top of the road. They don’t stop at the wide, six lane intersection, but bike away from street and highway lights to the dark, wooded trail ahead.
“Who else has a headlight?” Steve asks.
“Who else has a headlight?” Meyers mocks in a high-pitched voice.
Steve turns his on and tries to lead the way, but Meyers beats him to it. If anyone else has a light, they’re quiet about it. There’s a full moon to help light most of the way. The path from Copper Mountain to Frisco is familiar, bike only, paved, downhill, and mostly straight.
Meyers’ stout, shaven legs pedal like he’s got something to prove. Steve is right behind him. Steve has a lanky body that may be the same in mass as Meyers’ but stretched out over an extra foot or so of height. His hair is thinning and receding as if to reveal the trick aging is playing on him. He keeps it under a hat almost all the time, even in front of his wife, to remain in his own generation in the eyes of onlookers. One day his daughter’s friends will say “your dad’s old.”
Steve measures his personality out like an accountant. He calculates and metes out his responses, swirling statistics and possible phrasing around his mind before spitting out a comment like a receipt. He never speaks loudly or smiles but is intelligent and interesting in the factoids he can produce on nearly any topic. He rarely stays out past eleven or drinks more than two or three beers. But it’s his birthday and his wife and daughter are out of town and Meyers came by early in the day and convinced him of his duty to celebrate. Granted that duty was mainly to Meyers who is nearly always celebrating something, but still, it had been good to have a friend surprise him.
He’d started the day the usual way with no young man's delusions about birthdays. He emptied the dishwasher and let the dog out. Then he fried two eggs, made toast, and ate. He walked his black lab on an old dirt mining trail in the pine forest near his home. Along the walk, he thought about the beetle kill, what plans would best protect homes and water sources, and uses for the wood. When he arrived home, he had a text from Meyers.
“Beers? Let me correct that. Beers. Bike to Copper at 4.”
It was a set of instructions more than an invitation which he resisted at first out of the habit of needing to follow a plan, but then thought “Why not?”
Before he knew it, it was 12:30 am and he was speeding down the trail after Meyers, impervious to the night, suddenly anxious to pass Meyers, competitive. He pedaled faster, but no Meyers.
Steve is focused now, determined to beat Meyers, to pedal faster. His legs pump and the air whirrs around him, wheels buzz quietly and he breathes steadily. Still no Meyers. He speeds on.
Suddenly, the air is knocked out of him as he thumps into something soft and fetid. Dazed, it takes quite a few moments to reorient himself. He feels sticks and smells pine needles. He feels around and finds himself on his back on the ground. He spits fur out of his mouth, reaches up a hand to pick at more. He has fur in his mouth and his nose. He takes stock of his body, arms, legs, trunk, feet, hands. His hands are scuffed but nothing else seems injured so he stands up, dusts himself off. Even after sneezing and spitting some more, the tickle of the fur continues to irritate him and the smell of something like oak, urine, and the zoo seems permanently inside his nose.
He can’t believe Meyers is going to beat him. He can’t believe he’s hit a bear. And “oh my god, what happened to my bike?” he wonders, afraid to find the answer.