Northern Tier (2)

“Do you still have your cargo?” the camper asks her.

She nods.

“So the passes are open,” she says. It’s not a question.

The camper gives her the cycer’s thumbs-up: four fingers splayed up into the air.

She looks at the sky. It’s about three in the afternoon. It’ll be dark in an hour or two.

“Heading out,” she says. Gets on her bike and rides back to the church, leaving Orange and the camper to stare after her.

“Slip,” the camper says to himself.

“Six months,” says Orange. “Six fucking months!”

“Slip,” he says again, and shakes his head.

***

To become a cycer, all you need to do is ride from one coast to the other.

Doesn’t matter what route you take. Go from Baja to Savannah in the winter, Portland to Portland in the summer. Depends on the weather, what city’s at war with what other. You plan your route from camp to camp so you can get the intel, find out where to go and what to bring. Stay safe. Stay alive.

You make it, and you want to do it again, you’re a cycer. Ride the round for a while until they’ve got a package for you to deliver. Keep delivering until you break, you die, or you walk away. Most don’t walk away.

You show up to your end-camp, one coast or the other, holding your checksheet. Every camper you’ve seen has signed and dated it, just as they’ve made note of everything on your sheet, each camper carrying in their head a picture of where every cycer is all across the continent. So a wannabe shows up with twelve, fifteen, maybe twenty checks on their checksheet. It’s their diploma. It’s a map of their trip across the country.

This one girl rides into Boothbay on a bike that’s barely holding together. Thing must weigh sixty pounds. She can’t be much bigger. Three months later this sweet little bike, long and light, cruises into Astoria. Girl hands in her checksheet and that’s all it says: Gloucester.

“How the hell did you manage that?” the camper asks.

She grins at him. “Guess I gave ’em the slip.”

***

She gets to the church, where Ponytail’s just coming down from the steeple. They nod at each other. Slip gathers her things, including the strongbox that has her delivery still inside. She straps it to her rear rack with her bed-roll and bags, throws a jar of peanut butter and a box of hard-tack on her front rack, opens the front door of the church, and rides out.

Her muscles are warm, tired. Plenty of life left in them. She pushes strong and hard, cresting the mountain into a golden flow of sun. She uncorks an aluminum bottle full of water, drinks it try. She takes a sip from another bottle and then squats by the side of the road to pee.

She knows the road isn’t very good. No matter how many times the locals pour pitch and tar over the broken pavement, no matter how many oxen pull giant drums of water over it to make it flat, these roads are two hundred years old. They’re bad.

Some cycers ride heavy bikes with shock absorbers, studded tires, low gears. They go slow and steady. But they won’t get the priority deliveries, the ones that pay the best, the ones that let you hold your head highest when you stand around other cycers in whatever camp you’ve just rolled into. And when they’re being chased, they won’t get away.

Slip’s bike is long, light, and responsive to the road. Means she can feel every pebble she rides over. Means it feels like a riding jackhammer. She’s been punishing herself all winter, to keep in shape, to keep from going crazy with nothing to do. But she hasn’t hit hard pavement in six months.

Tomorrow she’s going to be sorer than a Roanoke whore on Fleet Day. Today she clips in, puts her head down, and rides.

It’s fifteen miles to the Connecticut River. It’s all downhill, the longest downhill coast this side of the Rockies. The wind rushes over her; she opens up to it, unfolding her body, pulling it over her like a warm blanket. She opens her mouth and lets it fill her. Chews on it. Bites it. Laughs with a mouthful of the world.

The road levels off. She pulls over and takes another drink. She walks her bike a hundred yards. She always does, after a long coast at speed. Otherwise however she pedals will seem slow to her, a baby’s crawl. And it will drive her nuts. Sometimes for ten hours on end.

She pulls into Bratt just as the sun is setting. As she slows to the speed of village traffic her muscles cool. This lets in the night air which is cooler still. She stops in front of an old brick building with horses tethered in front of it, one of the few buildings in town with electric lights in the windows. She carries her bike up the steps and takes it inside.

It’s a tavern. A nice tavern, which means she doesn’t worry about getting grabbed or stabbed or shot. There are casks of beer behind the counter, a glass-fronted cabinet full of sausages and potted meats.

Slip asks for a loaf of barley-bread, butter, honey, a plate of pickled carrots, a smoked sausage as long as her seat-tube. Water to drink, because the Connecticut runs swift enough that it’ll be clean and sweet. The bartender glares at her. She’s about Slip’s age, but they couldn’t be farther apart. The girl looks contemptuous, disdainful. All girls do. And the older women look with hatred or with longing at what they could have been. And the men just long.

Two guys come over. Nice-looking men, older. One’s got the lopsided biceps of a blacksmith. “Buy you a drink?” he asks. “Cycer?”

She smiles, shakes her head. “Never drink on a cross,” she says.

“Where you crossing to?”

“Plymouth,” she lies. “Only six months late.”

“It was a long winter,” the other guy says. He smells like wood-chips and weed.

“Nice bike,” says the blacksmith. “May I?”

He gets down on a knee and plays with it. The carpenter eats a bowl of pickled radishes. The food of early spring.

“Beautiful bike,” the blacksmith says, looking at her like she was his favorite daughter.

“That’ll be six dollars,” says the bartender.

“And a room.”

“Nine.”

“All to myself.”

The bartender glares. “Fifteen.”

“Receipt,” Slip says. The bartender puffs up but writes it out. Slip signs it, presses on an ink-pad for her thumbprint. A cycer’s paper is the only paper that’s good from sea to sea.

The carpenter makes a pass at her. It’s not so much clumsy as it is a joke. He just wants to show that he’s one of the boys. Even though he pulls a saw and she’s an errant knight.

She tussles his hair. “All I’ve got is a head needs a pillow.”

“You sleep tight, cycer,” says the blacksmith.

She tips the bartender a thin slab of silver. Carries the bike up the stairs herself. Any of the guys in the place would have been glad to help her, just to help a lady, just to help a cycer. But you might as well ask a samurai to carry their sword.

And she sleeps. Because a cycer’s a person who eats, then eats, then sleeps.

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~ by davekov on 9 June 2014.

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