After all, he was Iron Mike Sweeney. The Enemy of…


He felt the tears begin to well up and he swiped at them with pure anger.


“Damn you!” he suddenly yelled, his voice rising high and loud, bursting out of his troubled chest.


Then, with a snarl of pure rage, he thrust himself over the crest of the hill and plunged down the far side, his legs worked furiously, churning around and around as the bike accelerated smoothly; not to get home a moment faster, but to channel his fury and fear somewhere. The War Machine became a blur as it shot down the hill.


He saw the glow of the headlights just a split second before the vehicle crested the near hill. It bounded up over the knoll and swept down the other side, moving at incredible speed for so narrow a road. Mike was just beginning his climb up the hill, having taken the last four hills at a rapid clip.


The headlights dazzled him, and with his bright yellow and orange school jacket and white baseball cap, he fairly glowed in their brilliance. The vehicle—Mike still couldn’t tell what kind of car or truck it was—swooped straight down the hill at him, never veering to give him space. When he saw the red running lights, he knew it was a truck, and the wide set of the headlights confirmed this, but he couldn’t understand why it was driving so fast and why it wasn’t giving him any room. Didn’t it see him? It hogged the whole side of the road, cramming the shoulder, which was his only lane unless Mike decided to veer over to the other side. The truck sped on, and Mike was sure that the driver didn’t see him, despite the brightness of his clothes. In the few seconds he had left, he jagged sharply and quickly to his left and gave the truck as wide a berth as possible.


Those few seconds snapped away like firecrackers and then time seemed to accelerate as the headlights also shifted, and Mike stared in complete horror as he realized the truck was angling toward him. Crossing the yellow line and angling directly toward him!


Mike tried to wave the truck away, but the roar of the engine actually increased, and then suddenly everything in Mike’s world seemed to change, to become brighter as if there were spotlights on everything—and somehow he knew that this illumination was not coming from the headlights. It was as if some inner lights had flashed on, and at the same time everything abruptly slowed down. Mike was crouched over his handlebars, his face turned toward the oncoming truck. There was no sound. The truck’s wheels were angled and the chrome bumper was so close he could have reached out and touched it. Mike felt his hands jerk the handlebars sharply to one side—and that motion seemed the only thing that happened in real time—and then he threw his weight farther forward, adding his mass to the impetus from the fierce pumping of his legs. In a fragment of a second, as the truck rolled at him—murderously close and yet moving so impossibly slowly—Mike veered his bike at a crazy angle and slipped past the very corner of the big silver bumper.


Immediately he shot back into real time and with a deafening roar the tow-​truck shot past him, the fenders and wheels inches from him, the slipstream ripping at him. The truck passed in a second and as it ripped past, Mike’s bike shot off the highway, crunched across the verge, and flew into black emptiness.


He had no time to scream, and no voice for it anyway. The War Machine hurtled off the edge of the drainage ditch and smashed down in the pumpkin patch that bordered the road. The front wheel hit the twisted vine spiraling out from the top of one large gourd and the bike stopped at all once. Mike kept going.


He passed over the handlebars, turned a neat somersault in the air, and almost—almost—rotated far enough forward for him to land on his feet. It would have been a wonderful accident worthy of a standing ovation, but as he passed over the bars his left sneaker toe caught the rippled rubber of the handgrip and spoiled the rotation. Mike’s heels hit first but lacking the right angle of momentum he fell backward instead of forward. His buttocks smashed down on a pumpkin and it burst under him, the stem giving his tailbone a painful jolt; then his back hit a scattering of underdeveloped pumpkins, each the size and approximate hardness of baseballs. He could feel one rib break with a searing detonation of red-​hot pain that stole his breath, exploded his nerve endings, and closed a hot fist around his heart. His head flopped back and struck a stone.


Everything stopped. All sound and movement stopped and the only things he was aware of were blackness, searing pain, and the fireflies of head trauma.


Mike’s mouth worked like a fish, trying to gasp in air but finding none.


He lay there for thousands of years.


When his mind could function on a rudimentary level his first thought was: Oh, shit…I’m really going to be late now. Then, Oh my God, I think I’m dead.


Turning his head, he could see the receding taillights of the truck, could see that it was a tow-​truck—lightning seemed to strike sparks from the massive gleaming hook. The engine roared as the truck picked up speed and downshifted to climb the hill.


Mike lay there, dazed, hurting, trying to survive the moment.


Once the truck had crested the hill and vanished, he stared up at the dark and featureless sky. The lightning flickered distantly and underlit the clouds with a dark red glow.


As the engine growl of the tow-​truck dwindled into silence, Mike tried to make sense of things. He felt smashed and stupid and afraid. Amazed, too. That idiot in the tow-​truck had actually tried to run him off the road! He had really tried, gone out of his way to do it, Mike was sure of it. He simply couldn’t understand it.


He tried to move, couldn’t, and lay there, focusing on thought rather than feeling.


Sure, he’d seen some people play chicken with cyclists, shifting a little closer just to spook them, but never like this. Never at night on a deserted road and at such high speeds, and with such a clear-​cut intention of actually forcing him off the road. Or, he thought, maybe with the intention of hitting him. No, that’s dumb. Mike dismissed the idea as ridiculous.


His lungs started working better, taking in more air.


“Any minute now I’ll get up,” he said aloud, but he didn’t believe it.


I could be dead now, he thought in simple amazement. If I hadn’t moved so fast, I could be dead now. Just for a second his brain replayed that narrow escape. He recalled the eerie way in which time seemed to have slowed down as he veered his bike out of the way. It was so strange.


It was because of what he’d done that he was alive. He thought about that for a long time, replaying it in his head. Despite the pain, something like a smile formed on his lips. He was alive, he realized, because he had done exactly the right thing at the right time, and done it quickly, efficiently, and without hesitation. No playtime stuff. His own quick thinking had shown him the path and his own reflexes had taken him out of harm’s way. Iron Mike Sweeney, the Enemy of Evil.


He tried to move again and a fireball the size of North Dakota exploded in his back.


Any minute now, he thought, I’ll get up and get the heck out of here. Any minute now.


If he’d tried to outrun the wrecker he knew he would have been ground under those big wheels. Mashed into goo. The thought that he’d escaped that fate did nothing to cheer him, because of the very real fact that the driver of that truck had meant to kill him.


The rib was really starting to scream at him. Moreover, time was passing, and Vic would be waiting, belt at the ready, hard hands fondling the remote, waiting for him, pleased with how very late it was. Mike’s feeling of pride vanished instantly. His dread of Vic was overwhelming.


Still, he lay a few moments longer, collecting himself, and thinking about that crucial moment when he’d left the road, remembering what it had felt like. At no time had it ever been panic; no, that particular emotion had not been a part of it at all. Instead, the feeling had been simpler, more profound. He had just done what had to be done, a cool, calculated move, and it had been the right thing. A minor victory, perhaps, on a world scale, but it had been everything to the life of Mike Sweeney.


Slowly and carefully, he made himself sit up. It actually helped the pain, and when he carefully turned to look down he realized that it was the twisted stem of a pumpkin that had been jabbing him in the back. Even though he was sure a rib or two were broken the pain was a lot more bearable sitting up. He took it as a good sign, though he was only partly relived and partly disappointed. Getting stabbed in the back by something would have meant a stay in the hospital, and that would have been at least one night away from Vic.


“Oh well,” he said, and got slowly and carefully to his feet. It took a lot of doing. Both of his ankles were sore though he didn’t think they were sprained, but one rib was definitely cracked. It glowed like a hot ember with every breath.


He limped over to his War Machine. It lay on its side, covered in mud and pumpkin mush. With infinite care, Mike squatted down and raised the bike onto its wheels. Half pulling it, half leaning on it, he walked back up to the road and examined it in the glow from the nearly continual lightning flashes. The frame was undamaged, and when he rolled it back and forth he was delighted to discover that the wheels spun true. How it had come through the crash undamaged was a mystery, but with the way his body was feeling he certainly didn’t want to look any gift horses in the mouth.


With a dreadful expectation of the pain, he mounted the bike and began riding away. The pain was exactly as bad as he expected it to be and for a while he thought that fireflies were swarming around him, but it was only more of the fireworks display of scotoma. It took a long time for his eyes to clear enough for him to ride, but even then there was a fringe of sparks at the edges of his vision and a peculiar tingling in the flesh around both eyes. He plodded on, pedaling slowly and with tremendous care, fearing the exertion of the hills, moving into the night until he had left the site of his calamity far behind, pedaling laboriously up and down the mountains, heading for home to accept his belting.


6


State Extension Route A-32 lead up from the center of Pine Deep, curved lazily around the twists in the canal, and then darted off at a right angle through the farmlands. It was the main artery along which the tourists flowed into town, and down which the semis loaded with corn, pumpkins, apples, and pears headed southeast toward Philadelphia. Slow-​moving tractors, road graders, and harvesters chugged along it at modest speeds during the day, sometimes causing frustrating backups for the day-​trippers from Philly, Doylestown, and Willow Grove who flocked to Pine Deep to shop the antique stores and galleries, dine at the four-​and five-​star restaurants, and sip expensive wines and rare drams of scotch at the sidewalk cafés. About ten miles out of the town proper was a small dirt road that cut away from A-32 at a sharp right angle. There was no official name for it, being actually a disused farm road, but everyone called it Dark Hollow Road because that’s where it lead. At night, carloads of teenagers thumped and bumped along its rutted length heading for the Passion Pit, so named in the forties and never changed, where they did some rutting of their own. Nearly every night the pale glow of taillights looked like fireflies through the trees, and here and there some young lover’s gasp of climactic delight drifted on the breeze blowing through the pines.

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