Sometimes it’s good to trust my instincts.
When Liz and Mikey tried to get me to go out with them as the spring warmed the air, my plan was to absolutely refuse to let Mikey talk me into going for a ride on his motorcycle. I was afraid of it. The memory of the truck crash was too fresh in my head and no matter how good a rider I knew he was, every time I thought about it I saw myself falling off of the bike somewhere, into the road, bouncing and breaking and…
No, I had to say no.
Circumstances worked against me though. The weather waxed suddenly perfect, almost seventy degrees and sunny in the final days of April. Michigan weather is so unpredictable. Mikey and Liz and Liz’ friends Peach and Andrew all dusted their bikes off and Mikey led them to the Prices’ house just in time to meet me after school. He practically dragged me outside to where they were waiting at the end of the driveway. Their bikes were bright, summery colors, and it made me smile to look at them: green for Liz, yellow for Andrew, red for Mikey. Peach’s bike was older and dark teal, sort of beat-up, but even it looked happy.
“We’re gonna welcome summer,” Mikey said. “Want to come?”
I shook my head and smiled. As I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t have a helmet, he held out the extra one he had brought.
“It’s a perfect day for a ride,” he said.
“You said that in the middle of winter, too.” I was aware of Mrs. Price watching us from the house. No doubt she was making up personalities for all of them based on the fact that they’d ridden motorcycles to her home to pick up her foster daughter.
“Oh. Dammit, you’re right. Well, you should have gone then, too.”
“It’s good for the soul,” Peach said with a little smile.
I looked at Liz, but she was looking at her feet with the oblique smile she always got while she listened to Mikey talk to me. She was really happy with the fact that he was so into me, even if he wasn’t going to do anything about it.
“Why not?” Mikey asked. He was almost whining. Almost. He wasn’t quite whiny enough to cease being cute. “You can’t fault the weather, or the equipment…”
“Or the driver,” Peach added. “That’s important.”
“Right, or the driver. So what’s wrong?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m scared,” I said. Fine, so he’d laugh at me. Maybe they all would. I felt the age difference between us.
Mikey erased it with a smile. All of it. “Of course you are. You were in a huge car crash. It was so recent I bet you can still smell the hospital. Didn’t you get flung out of the car? Shit, I’d be scared of anything without seatbelts and a roll cage myself.”
I blushed. I looked at the ground to hide it, which did no good. When I looked up again Liz and Andrew were both watching me.
“But I promise, I promise I won’t drop the bike. We’ll go slow. I won’t go fast unless you ask me to. Please?” He looked at Andrew. “Should I get down on one knee?”
“Two to beg, one to propose,” Peach said.
“Oh, right.” He looked back at me. “If I ask you to marry me will you ride the bike?” My blush got hotter.
Liz laughed. “That’s not binding, Michael. She could marry you and still refuse to ride.”
“Oh. Shit.” He grinned; he liked playing the dimbulb game. He looked back at me and for a moment I thought he would say that he’d marry me anyway. Part of me wanted him to, in a daydreamy little way.
He didn’t say anything, though. Liz spoke first. “Compromise. Why don’t you two ride around the block, slow. Then if you want to go out on the road, Nikki, we’ll take you. If not, you can follow us in your car. How’s that sound?”
“I can do a compromise.” Mikey looked to me. His eyes were bright and eager.
I was almost able to accept the idea of riding on the bike with him, but then I got suddenly, ridiculously shy about putting my arms around him. “Could you take me around the block?” I asked Liz, a little hastily. “So I can see…?” My voice trailed off, got small. I was afraid I was insulting the hell out of Mikey. If he was hurt he didn’t let it show. “Then I can ride with you,” I said to him, a little less convincing than I wanted to be.
She considered it, running a hand through her green hair. “So des’. I can do that.” Liz straddled her bike. “Michael? Why don’t you helmet her?”
“Ohh, I’d love to,” he said. I looked sharply at him and that made him grin. He enjoyed shocking me with his innuendos. I kind of liked letting him do it.
He eased the helmet carefully over my head and adjusted the strap. My neck bobbed with the weight of the thing.
Mikey looked at me and smiled. “We’ll wait here,” he said.
“Girls ride first,” Andrew said mysteriously. I barely heard him; the helmet muffled sound. While I was pondering what he had said exactly, he picked me up. His hands reminded me of my father’s hands, strong and square. He lifted me easily and set me on the bike behind Liz. I didn’t mind; the helping hand left my hands free to hold on to my skirt, keep it from flying up.
“You need to tuck that in,” Peach said, speaking to me and Mikey. “Before she fires it up. It’s gonna get snagged.”
“He’s right, the chain’ll rip it right off of you,” Mikey said. He picked up the hem of my long skirt and shook it a little. “I think it’s so cool that you don’t own a pair of jeans.”
“Megan’s are too big for me,” I said. Megan was the Price’s daughter, blond-haired, blue-eyed and my age.
He didn’t hear me through the helmet. “What?”
“Nothing.” I concentrated on tucking my skirt under myself and not letting it reveal too much of my leg.
Liz was putting her own helmet on. She had long periods of silence like I did. Everyone always thought she was mad about something because of it. But she was just quiet. Only Andrew and I knew that she was a very recently recovering alcoholic. She was still ashamed of some of the things she had done. Even Peach and Mikey didn’t know all of it. They didn’t know how bad she had really been, even though they had known her when she drank. Liz got her helmet on (it was green and white, like her bike and hair) and looked back at me. She winked at me, which was completely out of character for her, but it made me smile back. My cheeks rubbed against the inside of the helmet.
The motorcycle roared to life underneath me. I grabbed Liz’ sides in surprise, then let go, embarrassed. She said, “Go ahead,” yelling to be heard through the helmet and over the yowling engine. “It’s easier to hold on to me than the bike.” I slipped my hands back around her waist.
A slight rise and drop in engine note, and we were rolling. It felt like we were on a tightrope. I closed my eyes, and they stayed closed. Even though I trusted Liz, I didn’t trust the bike to stay up, despite her skill. When she asked if I was okay, I nodded without looking at anything. The air flowing over my body and through the helmet was pleasant, and I concentrated on that rather than the tilting and weaving of the bike as we took a parade-speed trip around the block.
When we got back I agreed to go on Mikey’s bike then. I couldn’t resist looking at the house as I climbed off of Liz’ bike and onto Mikey’s. Mrs. Price was gone.
We had gone a few blocks and gotten out on the road before I finally opened my eyes. With no protective cocoon of metal and glass to shield me, the other cars on the road looked huge, almost predatory, as they rolled along on either side of us. I looked at the cars on either side of us; no one was watching us. Knowing I wasn’t in the limelight made me feel better also. But we were going so fast… I held on to Mikey a little tighter and rested my head on his back. He felt more substantial than Liz. She was soft where he was firm. I noticed that I could feel his muscles move as he shifted his weight, keeping the bike on track.
When I felt that, the ride got better. I could feel him controlling the bike. My fear of falling didn’t disappear, but it receded several steps. I tried on another smile, liked it, and let it stay. Craning my neck to look behind us, I saw Peach bringing up the rear. If I leaned out just a little bit I could see Liz and Andrew riding side by side in front. Mikey wobbled when I leaned, so I tucked back behind him.
I understood what they had meant about welcoming summer. The sun seemed warmer, and all the colors were brighter. I felt very…real, as if I’d been ethereal for the past six months or so and was only just becoming solid. It was a good way to get around.
I liked being close to Mikey, too.
We rode through downtown Birmingham, catching a few sidelong glances from faces in expensive cars and trucks. I saw my foster sister coming out of one store and going into another; if she saw me, she didn’t know who she was looking at. I had no reason to acknowledge her, so I didn’t. I felt like I had escaped their world, for just a few minutes. Relief beyond compare.
When we turned onto Woodward, Liz and Andrew accelerated violently. Peach shot past us also. I expected Mikey to follow them. I squeezed him hard in anticipation, but he didn’t launch. He looked over his shoulder at me, and his eyes were smiling. He kept his promise not to go fast. We caught up to the others slowly. Mikey snaked the bike through traffic subtly, never taking chances, never having to brake or accelerate hard. My fear of tumbling off the back of the bike abated somewhat, although I still felt naked back there. Ahead of us, the others were pulling into McDonald’s. Mikey followed suit.
Liz and Peach helped me off the bike. I was surprised to find that my legs were shaking, once I was on the ground. I took a little stagger-step, and Peach caught my elbow. “Whoo there, careful.”
I took the helmet off. “I’m dizzy.”
“You’ve been too lazy,” Liz said. “You’re tasting that aged adrenaline, that’s been sloshing about in those glands for what must have been months.”
“Did you like it?” Mikey asked, touching my shoulder.
I looked at his hand, then at his face. The sweet look in his eyes took my words away. I nodded and smiled.
Liz and the others went inside, leaving me with Mikey for a moment. “Thank you for coming and getting me. I don’t go out otherwise.”
“Why not? You have a car, don’t you?”
“It’s not that,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t have any place to go.”
“Come and see us,” Mikey said. “Or, if you don’t want to, I don’t know, just get out and drive. Go to the mall, like you were the day we met you.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “I know. I can’t stand being there either. I just see people who remind me of the ones I’m trying to get away from. I’m too jaded to deal.”
He smiled and opened the door for me. “I don’t think you are,” he said, and dropped the subject.