By the time I got home my parents were both in bed. I didn’t feel like eating, so I showered and fell into bed. I doubted sleep would come, but it pounced like a ninja in the dark, fast and without warning. I dreamed about jigsaw puzzles with lots of pieces missing. Of actresses and after-school jobs. But mostly I dreamed about a giant clock, where I was caught in the massive gears, shucking and jiving for my life as the cogs churned relentlessly onward. Didn’t take a Freud to figure out what that dream meant. Tick-tick-tick.
I woke feeling restless and wired. I scrounged an old packet of instant oatmeal, nuked it, scarfed it and headed back to my bike.
It was the kind of California day that made the Beach Boys millionaires. The sun was bright, the air blue and the Santa Anas breezy. I rode to school, curious to see what Betty Ann had learned about Sylvia’s schedule. Had Reno’s girl worked that Friday? My hunch was she had. But did she do the deed? Or did that honor belong to step-sibs Pensicola and Roberts? Maybe all three?
I tooled along main street thinking about Pensicola/Carmen/whoever the hell she was. Her step-sib relationship to Robers made them both gold star suspects. But did either of them have access to the school computers? And the original text to Pensicola had come from a restricted number. Would her own step-brother’s number be restricted?
The black Ford Escort of Hammet fame pulled out of a sidestreet and fell in behind me.
I turned off main onto 8th. Traffic thinned. The Escort roared up behind me. The car still had the cannibalized pizza box duct taped over the license plate. I kept glancing over my shoulder, trying to see through the tinted windshield, but the glass was filthy. Dirt and grime caked the window. The driver obviously could see out but I couldn’t see in.
A car passed me going the other direction and I noticed there wasn’t much company on the road. The Ford and I had the pavement almost to ourselves. The first trill of fear wriggled in my guts at my non-forced-error. 8th ave was a narrow road overhung with trees and lined with metal guard rails as far as the eye could see. The barriers kept cars from driving off the road into the deep ditches that lined the street. They also kept me from turning off the road. I had nowhere to run.
The Ford gunned the engine and charged at ramming speed, kissing my rear wheel. My bike shuddered and I fought the steering wheel to keep from going over the handlebars and giving the tar a wet bloody kiss.
I stood on the pedals and pumped harder, gaining a little speed, pulling me ahead a few yards. But I couldn’t out run a car and the Escort instantly closed the gap behind me. I heard the engine whine behind me and I cut sharply to the left, zigging across the yellow line.
I saw a road intersecting 8th up ahead and I churned toward it, throwing frantic glances behind me. The Escort drifted lazily into my lane on the wrong side of the street, barreling towards me. I looked up and--
HOOOONK! A foghorn blared. Tires squealed. A big eighteen-wheeler pulling out of the side road ahead blocked my path.
I slammed on the brakes and I heard a muffled thup. The rubber brake pad tore loose from the cantilever and fluttered past my ear. Sparks sprayed from the brakes as metal shrieked. I had no brakes so I cranked the handlebars. The rear tire skidded on the blacktop kicking up a gravel wake. I jumped on the pedals and leaned over the bars, legs pistoning with all my strength.
I slid past the big rig, feeling the engine heat through the grill as it grazed my shoulder.
Damn it. I missed the turnoff. I fishtailed back onto the road. The Escort pulled up fast.
My throat clicked dry. My brain panicked. I had to fight for control of my muscles.
I pedaled faster, my legs a blur, my quads and calves burned with the effort. Still the Escort closed the gap behind me.
I braced for a ramming but the Ford swung into the oncoming lane, pulling even with me. I looked to my left, trying to get any visual on the driver, but the side windows were as filthy as the windshield. Convenient.
I had two options. Keep going or stop.
Racing down the deserted road with this nut job eighteen inches to my left, hell-bent on driving me into the guard rail made me nauseous.
But stopping made me want to puke. How desperate was this guy? Did he have a gun? If I stopped, there was no way I could nurse the bike up to speed for a getaway.
I chose nausea over puking. I gripped the wheel and pumped, flicking through gears until I couldn’t go any faster. I could see the school looming in the distance but didn’t know if I could endure the last 100 yards.
Just ahead the guard rail ended. The Escort veered into my lane, like a hockey player going for a full body check. I yanked right, trying to avoid clashing metal, but I overcompensated. I lost control and careened off the road. I pulled up hard on the handlebars and jumped the ditch, hitting the far side with a crunch that nearly threw me off like a bronc buster that made his 8 seconds. Off road now I headed downhill toward the back of the school.
But I had no brakes and hard desert sand was littered with cactus, brambles and thorns. Ditching now would put me in the hospital.
I hunkered down, gritting my teeth as I charged down two acres of dry desert scrub that ripped my clothes and skin in angry witch-fingernail scratches. The handlebars thumped and jittered like a jackhammer.
I heard myself scream as I hit the retaining wall. I caught five feet of air, had a pretty good hang time before I slammed into the blacktop.
The impact crumpled my front wheel and it folded. The front forks bit into the tar and I flew headfirst into the rough pavement. I tried to roll with the momentum, but felt skin scrape off my forearms and knees. My head hit the bumper of a parked car and my world turned to white hot pain. If I were the Trix rabbit there’d be little birdies circling my head.
But I was alive.
Whoever was pulling the strings just upped the ante. Someone was playing for keeps.