Erupting from the wood into brilliant sunlight, Louis slammed on his brakes and skidded to a halt. From here, looking out round the curve of the mountain, he could just make out the farmhouse and the thin wisp of dirt track leading up to it. At first the track looked empty, but as Louis’ eyes followed it up towards the farmhouse, he saw something that made him gasp. A car was parked in front. From this distance, he couldn’t make out the markings on the car, but he recognized the small domed shape on the top. It was a police car. Louis felt himself start to shake. How long till the police looked through the kitchen window at the half-eaten pasta and realized they had done a runner? How long till they met the group of hikers coming down from Easedale and asked them whether they had seen three kids running away? How long till the hikers pointed the police in the direction of the wood? Louis looked wildly around him. The hikers’ trail followed the side of the wood and then curved gently downwards towards the bottom of the mountain, but there was no time to follow that route. Here, out of the wood, he was bare and exposed. The police only had to look through a pair of binoculars to see a boy on a bicycle weaving his way down the side of the mountain. No, he had to get down as quickly as possible and disappear amongst the cars that dotted the main road. And the only way to do that was to go straight down the side. The thin curve of grey tarmac stretched out beneath him, snaking its way round the foothills, matchbox cars following it along. He toyed with the idea of sending his bike down on its own and then sliding down after it, but realized that if he broke the bike, the plan was finished. It seemed like the only obvious thing to do was go down the steep grassy mountainside on his bike. But the thought of it made his insides twist and clench with fear.
He positioned the bike, took a deep breath, and edged the front wheel forward, adrenaline pumping full throttle. One foot skimming the ground for balance, he began his descent, his knuckles white around the brakes. The first fifty metres or so weren’t too bad – the grass was thick and he was able to dig his wheels in and use his foot to take the edge off his speed. He was never fully in control from the start – his descent was too rapid for that – but he could just make out some rocks jutting out from the hillside and he managed to keep them well to his left. Then the ground beneath his wheels began to harden and he could feel himself gathering speed; he tried to hold back, his hands like vices around the brakes, but found himself forced to lean forward just to keep his balance. The earth was growing dryer and looser by the second and it was with a jolt that he realized that very near the surface was solid rock. The wind whipped tears from his eyes and prevented him from drawing breath. There was not much he could do now but concentrate on staying on the bike. His wheels began to bounce against the stones, and he found himself grating his teeth together as the pace seemed to quicken yet further. He was now hurtling down the mountainside out of control, his brakes unable to take the edge off the speed, and all he could do was concentrate on staying upright. It was around this time, as the wind began to howl around him like trapped animal, that he felt his front wheel lose its grip and begin to slide. He instantly pulled his weight back, trying to prevent a full slide, only to have the back wheel give in the same way. He concentrated on staying as sideways on as possible, knowing now that a crash landing was inevitable, and tried to create some drag with his leg to slow his imminent fall.
A piece of rock flew up and hit him on the elbow with a blinding crack and propelled him forward and outward so that suddenly his bike was falling out from under him and the world began to tilt. It felt as if he was trapped in a giant washing machine, spinning round with incredible force, the ground coming up to slap him in the face at every turn. The firm knowledge that it would stop soon, that the ground would have to level out eventually, was of surprisingly little comfort. He closed his eyes, forced to submit to the inevitability of his roll, every crack sending shock waves of pain throughout his body and overriding any other sensation he could have possibly felt. It should have all been over in a couple of seconds, and in real time apparently it was, but his fall down the hillside seemed to last for ever. Something caught him hard above the ear and there seemed to be a moment of complete darkness before something else hit his knee, forcing him to acknowledge consciousness. And when the tumbling finally stopped, it took him by surprise and he thought he must still be rolling, although he could feel he was lying flat on the grass. He kept his eyes closed, teeth clenched, still expecting another hit, but none came. And it seemed he had been lying there for ever before he realized he was staring up at a brilliant blue sky.
It took him an age to get to his feet, and longer still to find his bike. He kept telling himself to hurry, hurry, hurry, but his body seemed to have other plans. As he finally recovered his bike and hobbled down to the edge of the road, he saw that he had torn a huge hole in the leg of his jeans, revealing a knee that was raw and bloody. His arms stung like crazy, there was something soft and sticky above his eye and his mouth tasted of blood . . . The relief he felt when he discovered his bike was still rideable was quickly replaced by breathtaking pain as he tried to push the pedals round on the smooth tarmac road.
It took him nearly an hour to ride into Windermere. A car pulled up at the side of the road and his heart almost stopped, but it was just a passer-by leaning out to ask if he was all right. Louis ignored him and pressed on, every push of the pedals sending a blinding pain through his knees. His mouth was dry, his body was plastered in sweat. And all he could think was I’ve missed him, I’ve missed him, I’ve missed him.
© Tabitha Suzuma