Though things were different now, the words still cut like shards of glass. Noel said she lacked fulfillment, that she had been using him like a genie in the bottle. Only, it seemed to him that she needed her little genie more often than not, which was, she supposed, his way of saying she had been co-dependent. Noel never came right out and said directly what was on his mind. Instead, he danced around it, pointing at it like John Travolta in white leisure suit.
In the darkness, the countertop illuminated by the soft digital blue from the microwave clock, Allyson heard the familiar ticking of Barty’s toenails on the tiles. His labored breath kept time with each step. He was Noel’s dog, an ancient Lab with white spots around the nose. He whimpered, and she gave him a light scratch between the ears.
“Hey, big guy. You need to go out?”
Standing at the back door, Barty outside taking care of his business, Allyson stared through the glass, the sky still an early-morning black. She thought about Monster Hill. How long had it been now, six years? Seven? Somewhere along the way, time had punched its ticket and stepped out, the days slipping by unnoticed like highway mile markers. It was funny how it did that.
Monster Hill, as she had called it, was a mile stretch of road, climbing a six percent grade that could easily dissolve hardened legs, turn them into jelly. Once over the crest, however, the land rolled out flat—a small reward; and from there, like Robert Earl Keen used to sing it, the road went on forever.
Allyson used to ride up Monster Hill on a regular basis. Her father said she was wasting her time, knocking off the same obstacle. Couldn’t she find something else to conquer? But then, he never understood the challenge, or the freedom that came with it. He never peddled his weight along an even surface, let alone a killer wall, so what did he know?
Allyson frowned. In a weird sort of way, she realized again the similarities in her life. Noel also thought she needed a vision. She needed a strategy to realize it, too. Without a plan to make it happen, life would amount to nothing more than a pile of pipe dreams and fantasies, tiny playthings of the mind that left people ultimately something less than human—defeated souls trapped in lifeless prisons, waiting for that last breath to sign their pardon. She didn’t need to be that way, Noel had told her. She needed to figure out what she wanted, and then to take it.
She let Barty back in, gave him one more scratch behind the ears, and headed for the garage. In the corner a grey Trek 520 leaned against the wall. At the time she bought it, Allyson paid for the bike with the cash she had saved. As usual, her father asked why. Wasn’t there anything else she could have spent the money on? Like what? Like maybe a new computer or a new television, or something for God’s sake that she could actually use without getting herself killed.
Noel had said essentially the same thing in so many words. He pointed out all the places she could ride like the trail around the city park or the high school running track. What were they going to need it for at five o’clock in the morning? Noel even showed her a route through their housing development. He personally mapped it out and drove it just so he could measure the distance and gauge the safety. Of course. The Safety. Like she was some child who couldn’t act responsibly.
Looking at the bike now, Allyson smiled, remembering there was a time when she like to take risks. She liked to get dirty, too, work so hard she had to peal her clothes off afterwards. To her, the danger of falling into a ditch or being plowed over by a car was an acceptable risk so long as she had the open country, the fresh air, and the occasional Monster Hill to tackle.
Pushing the Trek out of the garage, Allyson closed her eyes and listened to the click-click-clicking of the rear freewheel. This was her Fantasia, the sights and sounds that collectively composed the riding experience—the brush of wind in her face, the hint of spice from the juniper trees or the waft of sugar from the donut shops as she passed by. These were the constructs that Noel and her father could never piece together. Their idea of living was breathing in filtered air, conditioned to a steady seventy-two degrees; or listening to the clacking of keyboards, the constant din of voices over modular workstations; or watching the minute-by-minute rise and fall of market indices, their monitors and spreadsheet models transcending above simple ones and zeroes into modernized Ouija boards. Well, they could have all of that, if that's what they wanted. This last week, Allyson had finally decided to listen to the other voice, the one that beckoned to her like an old friend wanting to chat over a cup of coffee. This is what she wanted.
She straddled the seat and slotted her left foot into the peddle.
“Just like riding a bike,” she said to the darkness.
Then she pushed off.