Chapter 1: Pay it forward

Emily screamed. Her eardrums exploded as intense white light surrounded her. She felt herself falling to the left as the bicycle flew out from under her. She tucked and landed on her hip and shoulder.

Blinded and hearing nothing but ringing in her ears, she smelled ozone. The earth felt damp beneath her, cooling the road rash on her side and shoulder. A buzzing sensation on the back of her neck and over her head seemed to push against her helmet.

She felt the pain build in her shoulder and left arm. The darkness after the white light resolved into swirling colors and shapes as her vision returned. Out here in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing to hear, but she thought the ringing was less.

After a few minutes, she blinked and looked around. Her bicycle lay against the bottom of a blackened and smoking oak tree, planted by a farming family long gone. Steam mingled with the smoke from the wet stump. Bits of branches, bark, and wood lay on the ground downwind from the tree.

She got up carefully. Trying to hug herself hurt her arm even worse. The rain that had soaked her had stopped, but the wind was picking up. That rain had also soaked the oak leaves littering the road and caused her crash.

She regretted going out on this training ride alone. Mary and Joanna had both backed out at the last minute. Emily was at least twenty miles from town, and it would be dark in another hour and a half.

She worried about her arm, but she was sure that it was only scraped badly and not broken. Still, her favorite Shebeest bicycle jersey was bloodstained and torn, and her spandex shorts had big holes on the left side. The road rash on her arm and side and the cut on her cheek were clotting.

She was more worried about her bicycle, a three-thousand-dollar Colnago that her stepfather had bought for her birthday four months ago. She had been winning amateur racing events all season and was hoping to win two more races before winter consigned her to the spinning studio at the gym until spring. She shivered and walked over to the bike.

The front wheel looked like a pretzel after hitting the tree when she flew off the pavement on her left side. Lifting it up, she tried to roll it, but the front wheel ran into the fork, and the bike stopped. Her mood shifted from tears to frustration.

It occurred to her that not having a little tool kit under her saddle was probably a bigger oversight than taking the risk of riding alone. She shrugged; she didn’t know how to fix anything anyway.

She reached for her cell phone and found the whole pocket missing from her jersey. The cell phone was lying in two pieces on the pavement where she had fallen. She pocketed the pieces and picked up the bike.

At least the Colnago was light. She hefted it on her good shoulder and started walking along the highway. She was hardly an elegant sight, wobbling awkwardly in her cleated, hard plastic racing shoes. She considered going in her socks, but the gravel on the edge of the road was sharp and nasty looking.

With something to do – even if unpleasant – she felt her scrapes less, except maybe for the bruise on her left hip, which was her main shock absorber hitting the pavement. She figured that, at worst, she could make it back to town in three hours, if she could not hitch a ride.

Hitchhiking. Her mother would have a bigger fit over that idea than her riding alone. The lack of any traffic was the main reason that she trained on this highway, which ran to an abandoned army post fifty miles west of town. Her parents would be at the Durstens’ party until after midnight, so no one would miss her as she hiked along the deserted road.

After a half hour, she had stopped shivering. She took off her shoes, tied them to the saddle post, and started walking on the pavement. It was not comfortable, but she was moving at a better clip. The bicycle, light as it was, had begun to dig into her shoulder, so the smoother gait helped with that.

Cornfields extended in all directions as the asphalt ribbon seemed to disappear into a yellow tunnel of corn in the distance. She had never really looked at the scenery – or lack of it – before. As the shadows from the stalks spread across the road, she noticed how the fields went from yellow to golden to purple. As the sun began to sink out of sight behind her, the purple fields slowly turned dark. There were still maybe forty-five minutes of light left.

Emily noticed the Evening Star (Venus, she remembered) appear up ahead while there was still plenty of light. Beyond the rustle of the wind, she heard a sound behind her. She shifted as she walked and saw what looked like a small bear with a flashlight in its mouth, weaving back and forth on the road, maybe a quarter mile back. She stopped and squinted.

A bicycle. With panniers. And a dark form sitting almost erect on it.

Emily stared as the bicycle came closer. Bicycle tourists belonged to a different universe, especially the bike-packing variety who often rode through town. Generally unkempt, looking unwashed, with assorted collections of gear lashed to their bicycles and panniers, more like peasants fleeing an invading army than regular people. “As likely to steal supper as buy it,” her mother would say as she crossed the street to avoid meeting them. The men never shaved, and the women never had their hair combed. Still, Emily wondered why they always seemed so cheerful, why they always waved when her racing team blew past them.

The sound she heard took form. The bicyclist was singing loudly. She weaved happily as if waltzing to the music, which indeed she was. It wasn’t a familiar song, and Emily thought that she had all the hits on her playlists.

It was a waltz! The rider was not wearing earbuds but was singing from memory—in German. As the rider approached, Emily could see that she was a strong, black woman. Certainly not a kid, she could be any age from twenty-five to sixty. She was riding a fifty-nine-centimeter frame, which could take a six-foot man. Under her helmet, a smile spread across her face. As she reached the final line of the waltz, the rider leaned back erect and belted out the coda with her arms spread out. Emily guessed that she was rolling at fifteen miles per hour with no hands and four panniers! She grabbed her handlebars and coasted to a stop alongside the stunned Emily. The muscles in her forearms rippled as she braked.

“You know, you got it backwards, girl. It’s supposed to carry you, not the other way around.” The way she grinned, Emily felt comforted, not put down.

“I crashed, and I’m walking home.”

“The next town, I take it.”

“Yes. About fifteen miles, I guess.”

“Hoo-ey. That’s a long hike.” She dismounted the bicycle and parked it, supported by a kickstand that would hold up a truck. She smoothly unbuckled and removed her helmet, which she pulled off a long ponytail of shiny black hair. With her angular cheekbones and tall, spare frame, she made Emily think of something awe-inspiring. An Amazon, perhaps.

“Your parents probably don’t want you talking to strangers.” She put out her hand. “I’m Hilda.”

“Emily.” She took Hilda’s hand and felt her strong, confident grip. She also noticed her crisp, clear accent like the British actors on BBC mysteries. “What brings you here? There’s nothing but an abandoned base on that road.”

“I know. Which makes it perfect for unmolested camping. The parade ground made a beautiful campsite. The grills in the picnic areas beat campfires any day, and the water still runs in the toilets. Someone forgot to turn that off, I guess.”

“Are you crossing the country like the other bicycle tourists I’ve seen?”

“Probably. If I am, I’m only halfway there, and who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

“But you’re alone!”

“So it would seem. And it would seem that so are you.”

“But I live here –up there a ways, anyway.” Emily looked to the distant end of the road.

“I assume you aren’t walking because you like to carry expensive bicycles in the dark.”

“Front wheel hit a tree when I slid off the road. Did you see the leaves back where the oak tree is?”

“I did. Went through there shortly after the rain stopped. I hate leaves. They’re worse than snow.” Hilda pointed to the bike on Emily’s shoulder. “What have you got there? May I look?”

Emily swung the bike off her shoulder. Hilda grabbed it easily, flipped it upside down with one hand, and set it gently on its handlebars and seat.

“Very nice bike. You wouldn’t have a spoke wrench, would you?”

“I don’t have any tools,” Emily said apologetically. “If I did, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.”

“Probably on one of those sponsored teams with a pro wrench to fix everything.”

Emily nodded.

“Long-haul touring bikes usually don’t break down except in places like this. Maybe I can help.”

Hilda considered the front wheel. She went to her bicycle, rooted in the right pannier, and came back with a camping lantern, a flashlight, and a zippered bag.

“Got what you need right here. That wheel may look like a pretzel, but it’s perfectly formed for the kind of twist the spokes will give the rim if it’s hit just right. The rim isn’t broken or cracked.” She turned on the lantern. “What the hell, girl. You’re a mess!”

“It almost doesn’t hurt already.”

“But that road rash could get infected. Here, you hold the lantern, so we can see this. I’ll be right back.”

Hilda went back to her pannier and extracted a first aid kit and a pack of disposable wipes, the large kind that hospitals use to bathe patients.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry, but we need to clean this off. Did you see the bits of asphalt and gravel in your wounds?”

“Is that what it was? I was going to clean up when I got home.”

“Too much torn flesh to wait for that. Hold still.”

Emily winced a few more times as Hilda cleaned out the wounds and applied second skin to the worst of them. “Your face looks okay, now that it’s cleaned off. Just let it heal as is.”

With her wounds dressed, Emily felt much better already. Hilda put away her first aid kit and came back.

“Let’s look at your steed. Hold that lantern up, and I’ll show you what to do.”

“Thanks.” Emily raised the lantern and watched as Hilda loosened the brake and quick-release lever and removed the wheel.

“This is all we need.” Hilda held out a steel ring with square cuts in it. “Spoke wrench. They come in different sizes and only weigh a few grams. This one can handle the three most common spoke nipples. Watch.”

She set the wheel on the ground and let some air out of the tire. Then she inserted a square cut around a spoke nipple near the valve and twisted it a quarter turn.

“The spoke nipple is a nut on the threaded end of the spoke, right?”

Emily nodded, although this was news to her.

“Think ‘righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.’ Can you remember that?”

“Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Got it.”

“That applies to all right-handed screw threads. On your bicycle, that means every thread except your left pedal.”

Emily nodded again.

“Here’s the catch. Think of where the nut goes on the bolt or, in this case, the threaded end of the spoke. We are looking at the wheel from inside the rim, but the spoke nipple is screwed on the end of the spoke, so you look at it from the tire side, not the inside. Make sense?”

“Yes.” This is interesting, Emily thought.

“So, we loosen the spoke this way. See?”

“It looks backwards from here, but not if I imagine looking through the tire.”

“Good. Only loosen a quarter or a half turn at a time, so the pressure comes off the wheel evenly as we work our way around. I like to go to the opposite side of the wheel for each next spoke, but some mechanics just work all the way around. I’m playing it safe here. I got the first six. You try some.”

Emily gave Hilda the lantern, then worked her way back and forth around the wheel, loosening spokes a little at a time. Suddenly the wheel jumped out of her hands with a twang.

“Omigod! What was that?”

“The wheel righting itself. Are you okay?”

“Just surprised. What about the wheel?”

“It’s probably fine. We managed to loosen it all the way without setting anything wrong permanently. Now we just need to tighten and true it.”

“You mean, I can ride it?”

“Not now, but you won’t walk home.”

Hilda showed Emily how to start tightening the spokes carefully so that they exerted their pressure on the rim evenly. Eventually, the wheel felt hand tight.

“Let’s put it in the wheel truing jig,” said Hilda.

“You have one of those?” Emily asked, looking at the loaded panniers.

“No. You do. It’s called a fork. Here, slip the wheel back onto the bike.”

Hilda had Emily check the rolling direction of the tire and tighten the quick-release levers after the wheel was in its fork.

“Now, spin the wheel and see where it rubs or wobbles out of line. Then tighten the opposite spokes to pull it over, a quarter turn of the spoke nipple each time.” The two of them took turns until the wheel was not wobbling. Then Hilda checked the roundness by holding a screwdriver near the rim as it spun to see if it bulged out of a circular path. It was almost perfect. Emily tightened the opposing pairs of spokes needed to pull the rim into round. Hilda pumped up the tire with the long frame pump from her bike.

“I think you can ride home,” Hilda said at last. “It’s dark. Do you have a light?”

“No.” Emily’s elation sagged as she considered the empty, dark road. They could not even see the loom of the lights of town from here.

“Here. Let’s lash this flashlight to your handlebars. I’ll ride on the centerline side in the unlikely event we meet any other vehicles. Besides, that’s an emergency roadside job on the wheel. You should get a new wheel before you go out again.”

They put their helmets on and set out together. Hilda’s 850W Night Rider headlight lit the road comfortably for both of them, riding side by side. Emily told Hilda about her family, her school, and her racing team. She loved riding more than anything. Hilda turned out to be an army brat whose parents met in Germany, where she was born. Her father retired there, and Hilda grew up bilingual as well as bicultural and biracial. “All-American girl, that’s me!” she said. She was only riding as far as town to catch the train to Chicago, where a friend would join her for the eastern half of her trek.

An hour later, they coasted to a stop outside Emily’s home. Emily untied the flashlight and gave it to Hilda.

“I don’t know how to thank you, Hilda. Why don’t you stay the night here? I know that my folks won’t mind.”

“I’d love to, Emily, but I already have an e-ticket for the train tonight, and I don’t want to miss it.”

“But–”

Hilda put her hand on Emily’s shoulder and squeezed gently. The hand was warm, strong, and firm.

“It’s okay. Just pay it forward. You know what that means?”

“I think. Do someone else a favor?”

“You got it. Give me a hug and go help someone else someday.”

After Hilda’s brightly flashing taillight disappeared around the corner, Emily realized that she had never gotten her last name or any contact information. She parked her bike in the garage and went upstairs, snagging a protein bar and a carton of orange juice from the kitchen on the way. She took a shower and put her clothes in the trash. She donned a fresh pair of pajamas. Then she fired up her computer and looked up the winter maintenance class schedule at the K-Bikes bicycle shop.

© 2019, JT Hine. All rights reserved. 

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