Running with the Pack

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WILD RIDE

CARRIE VAUGHN

Just once, he wouldn’t use a condom. What could happen? But it hadn’t been just once. It could have been any one of the half-dozen men he’d drifted between over the last two years. His wild years, he thought of them now. He’d been so stupid. They all had said, just once, trust me. T.J., young and eager, had wanted so very much to please them.

“I’m sorry,” the guy at the clinic said, handing T.J. some photocopied pages. “You have options. It’s not a death sentence like in the old days. But you’ll have to watch yourself. Your health is more important than ever now. And you have to be careful—”

“Yeah, thanks,” T.J. said, standing before the counselor had finished his spiel.

“Remember, there’s always help—”

T.J. walked out, crumpling the pages in his hand.

Engines purred, sputtered, grumbled, clacked like insects, and growled like bears. Motorbikes raced up the course, catching air over hills, leaning into curves, biting into the earth with treaded tires, kicking up clods, giving the air a smell like chalk and gasoline. Hundreds more idled, revved, tested, waited. Thousands of people milled, riders in fitted jackets of every color, mechanics in coveralls, women bursting out of too-small tank tops, and most people in T-shirts and jeans. T.J. loved it here. Bikes made sense. Machines could be fixed, their problems could be solved, and they didn’t judge.

He supposed he ought to get in touch with his partners. Figure out which one had passed the disease onto him, and who he might have passed it on to. Easier said than done. They’d been flings; he didn’t have phone numbers.

“Look it, here he comes.” Mitch, Gary Maddox’s stout good-natured assistant, shook T.J.’s arm in excitement.

Gary’s heat was starting. T.J. looked for Gary’s colors, the red-and-blue jacket and dark blue helmet. He liked to think he could pick out his bike’s growl over all the others. T.J. had spent the morning fine-tuning the engine, which had never sounded better.

They’d come up to one of the hills overlooking the track to watch the race. T.J. wanted to lose himself in this world, just for another day. He wanted to put off thinking about anything else for as long as possible.

The starting gate slammed down, and the dozen bikes rocketed from the starting line, engines running high and smooth. Gary pulled out in front early, like he usually did. Get in front, stay in front, don’t let anyone else mess up his ride. Some guys liked messing with the rest of the field, playing mind games and causing trouble. Gary just wanted to win, and T.J. admired that.

Mitch jumped and whooped with the rest of the crowd, cheering the riders on. T.J. just watched. Another rider’s bike, toward the back, was spitting puffs of black smoke. Something wrong there. Everyone else seemed to be going steady. Gary might as well have been floating an inch above the dirt. That was exactly how it was supposed to be—making it look easy.

“Ho-leee!” Mitch let out a cry and the crowd let out a gasp as they all saw one of the riders go down.

T.J. could tell it was going to happen right before it did, the way the rider—in the middle of the pack to the outside—took the turn a little too sharply to make up time, gunned his motor a little too early, and stuck his leg out to brace—a dangerous move. His front tire caught, the bike flipped, and it might have ended there. A dozen guys dropped their bikes one way or another every day out here. But everything was set up just wrong for this guy. Momentum carried the bike into the straw bale barrier lining the track—then over, and down the steep slope on the other side. Bike and rider finally parted ways, the bike spinning in one direction, trailing parts. The rider flopped and tumbled in another direction, limp and lifeless, before coming to rest face up on a bank of dirt. The few observers who’d hiked up the steep vantage scattered in its path.

For a moment, everyone stood numb and breathless. Then the ambulance siren started up.

Yellow flags stopped the race. Mitch and T.J. stumbled down their side of the hill trying to get to the rider.

“You know who he is?”

“Alex Price,” Mitch said, huffing.

“New on the circuit?”

“No, local boy. Big fish little pond kind of guy.”

The rider hadn’t moved since he stopped tumbling. Legs shouldn’t bend the way his were bent. Blood and rips marred his clothing. T.J. and Mitch reached him first, but both held back, unwilling to touch him. T.J. studied the rider’s chest, searching for the rise and fall of breath, and saw nothing. The guy had to have been pulverized.

Then his hand twitched.

“Hey, buddy, don’t move!” Mitch said, stumbling forward to his knees to hold the rider back.

T.J. thought he heard bones creaking, rubbing against each other as the rider shuddered, pawing the ground to find bearings. Next to Mitch, he tried to keep the rider still with a hand on his shoulder. Price flinched, as if shrugging him away, and T.J. almost let go—the guy was strong, even now. Maybe it was adrenaline.

The ambulance and EMTs arrived, and T.J. gratefully got out of the way. By then, the rider had taken off his own helmet and mask. He had brown hair a few inches long, a lean tanned face covered with sweat. He gasped for breath and winced with pain. When he moved, it was as if he’d slept wrong and cramped his muscles, not just tumbled over fifty yards at forty miles an hour.

At his side, an EMT pushed him back, slipped a breathing mask over his face, started putting a brace on his neck. The second EMT brought over a back board. Price pushed the mask away.

“I’m fine,” he muttered.

“Lie down, sir, we’re putting you on a board.”

Grinning, Price laid back.

T.J. felt like he was watching something amazing, miraculous. He’d seen the crash. He’d seen plenty of crashes, even plenty that looked awful but the riders walked away from. He’d also seen some that left riders broken for life, and he’d thought this was one of those. But there was Price, awake, relaxed, like he’d only stubbed a toe.

Price rolled his eyes, caught T.J.’s gaze, and chuckled at his gaping stare. “What, you’ve never seen someone who’s invincible?”

The EMT’s shifted him to the board, secured the straps over him, and carried him off.

“Looks like he’s gonna be okay,” Mitch said, shrugging off his bafflement.

Invincible, T.J. thought. There wasn’t any such thing.

At the track the following weekend, T.J. was tuning Gary’s second bike when Mitch came up the aisle and leaned on the handlebars. “He’s back. Did you hear?”

The handlebars rocked, twisting the front tire and knocking T.J.’s wrench out of his hand. He sighed. “What? Who?”

“Price, Alex Price. He’s totally okay.”

“How is that even possible?” T.J. said. “You saw that crash. He should have been smashed to pieces.”

“Who knows? Guys walk away from the craziest shit.” Mitch went to the cab and pulled a beer out of the cooler.

It was true, anything was possible, Price might have fallen just right, so he didn’t break and the bike didn’t crush him. Every crash looked horrible, like it should tear the riders to ribbons, and most of the time no one was hurt worse than cuts and bruises. In fact, how many people even looked forward to the crashes, the spike of adrenaline and sense of horror, watching tragedy unfold? But something here didn’t track.

T.J. tossed the wrench in the tool box, closed and locked and lid, and set out to find Price.

Today was just practice runs; the atmosphere at the track was laid back and workmanlike. Not like race days, which were like carnivals. He went up one aisle of trucks and trailers, down the next, not sure what he was looking for—if he was local, Price probably didn’t ride for a team, and wouldn’t have sponsors with logos all over a fancy trailer. He’d have a plain homespun rig. His jacket had been black and red; T.J. looked for that.

Turned out, all he had to do was find the mob of people. T.J. worked his way to the edge of the crowd that had gathered to hear Price tell the story. This couldn’t have been the first time he told it.

“I just tucked in and let it happen,” Price said, a smile drawing in his audience. He gave an “awe, shucks” shrug and accepted their adoration.

T.J. wanted to hate the guy. Not sure why. He wasn’t quite his type. Or maybe it was the matter of survival. Price had survived, and T.J. wanted to. Arms crossed, looking skeptical, he stood off to the side.

Price looked friendly enough, smiling with people and shaking all the hands offered to him, but he also seemed twitchy. He kept glancing over his shoulder, like he was looking for a way out. T.J. worked his way forward as the crowd dispersed, until they were nearly alone.

“Can I talk to you privately?” T.J. said.

“Hey, I remember you,” Price said. “You helped, right after the crash. Thanks, man.”

T.J. found himself wanting to glance away. “I just want to talk for a second.”

“Come on, I’ll get you a beer.”

Price led him to the front part of the trailer, which was set up as a break area—lawn chairs, a cooler, a portable grill. From the cooler he pulled out a couple of bottles of a microbrew—the good stuff—and popped off the caps by hand. Absently, T.J. wiped the damp bottle on the hem of his T-shirt.

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