The tiny plastic bags rustled in Ethan’s pocket as he cycled. His stomach quivered, longing for it, but he would wait until he got home. His girlfriend was away for the weekend so he could party without having to share.
The mud track got steeper, the muscles in his legs burning in a good sort of way. He stopped at the top of the hill, breath becoming billows of steam, the river below visible through a gap in the manuka. It would make a good photo for Instagram to show his girlfriend that he was behaving. He had some bad news for her but didn’t want to upset her just yet. He wasn’t ready to tell her that he’d crashed her car. She would be furious about the dented bumper and broken headlight, but the other car was worse, shiny red paint scraped back to bare metal. He’d driven off without leaving a note, but people did that all the time, he told himself. He would tell her someone had hit her car after he’d parked it at work. Hopefully she’d never find out the truth.
He leaned his bike against a tree, hung his helmet on the handle bars and walked to the edge of the track where it dropped away to a steep gully, pulling out his phone. One of the bags flew out and he snatched at it, foot sliding on stones, stumbling, falling, breath lost on impact. Plummeting down, his head struck a rock before his rag doll body tumbled into the scrub.
Jake ran, before they could see his face, his tears. Before they could hurt him with more punishing words.
“GET BACK HERE!” his father yelled from the backdoor, voice thick with whiskey. Hands balled into fists. His mother stood at his side, looking from husband to son.
He didn’t stop. Their anger had turned to him again. It had started with his mum’s new red car getting sideswiped in a car park, then his Dad started on the drink. First, they yelled at each other, screaming insults and accusations, and then they began on him. Somehow their anger and frustrations became his fault, all their problems wrapped up and labelled ‘Jake’.
He ran until his throat was raw and his lungs could barely suck air, slowing to a walk. Shuddering breaths grabbed at his chest and he was glad no one could see him on the bush track as the evening light faded. Soon he could take refuge in the night where details were lost to darkness.
Something ahead reflected the last orange streaks of sunset. A silver mountain bike, leaning against a tree. He didn’t stop to wonder why it was there, tossing the helmet into the bush, riding off down the track before its owner could step out of the undergrowth and catch him. It was light in his hands, the suspension taking the ruts and tree roots with ease. A branch whipped his cheek and he lifted from the seat to turn sharply on the downward path, heading to his brother’s house where he knew he’d be safe for the night.
His brother was working on his car in the garage and stepped out from under the bonnet, wiping black greased hands on a rag.
“What have you got there, bro? Nice bike.”
“I got it for you. Thought you could use it for parts.”
His brother walked up to the bike, nodding. “Well done. I’ll give you a share of what I get for it.”
“Thanks.” He shivered, from cold or relief, and pulled the cuffs of his jacket down over his hands.
“So, what are ya doing at my place?” Jake scuffed his foot in the gravel, his silence speaking louder than words. “Dad on the piss? Stay here if you want.”
Jake walked into the house, his trembling fingers turning on the TV. He fell to the couch, comprehending nothing until his heart slowed down and the muscles in his shoulders relaxed.
A guttural groan stirred Ethan to consciousness, and a deep throb in his head told him he was alive. He opened his eyes to darkness.
Blood salted his mouth, dirt crunched between his teeth. Pain began to take over, leg and back pulsing, needing attention. He felt around for his phone, his hand finding only stones and damp leaves in the blackness. Panic increased the pounding in his head. He knew he needed help but no one would see him down the bank. He thought of his bike. Someone would find it up on the track and come looking for him. Someone would know what to do. He clenched his teeth, knowing help would be along soon.
A comforting warmth fell around him.
He closed his eyes.
Days of suffocating tension passed at home. Jake walked a sharp line between his parents, their few words icy, cutting. He stayed in his room away from the violent silences.
One evening his bedroom door opened slowly, his mother peering in.
“Fish and chips for tea?” The tightness in his chest eased.
“My shout,” he told her, passing the fifty dollars his brother had given him for the bike. She took it from him with a smile, closing the door softly.
He closed his eyes, nearly asleep when the stomp of boots in the hallway jarred him upright. He held his breath and listened, but the footsteps were light, not striking the wooden floor in anger.
Dad called out. “Teas ready”.
Jake entered the kitchen watching for tight lips, furrowed forehead. Listening for taut words. Dad slid the newspaper package into the middle of the table and sat down, leaning back in the chair, hands behind his head.
“I’ve booked the car in for Monday. The insurance company are going to pay out,” he told his wife. She gave a wan smile, unwrapping the steaming package of newspaper. Unseen on the bottom of page seven, hidden amongst local news, was a three-line article.
Missing Mountain Bike Not Found
The bicycle belonging to the man found dead below a popular off-road track Monday morning is still missing, its whereabouts a mystery. Police would like to hear from anyone who may have information about the silver MgT 24 speed mountain bike.
Chips spilled over the unread words. A piece of battered fish landed on the paper in front of Jake. His Dad give him a wink.
“Can you pass the sauce?”