Weeks passed, then months. From his walker, Noah progressed to crutches, then to wobbling around the house unsupported. He climbed stairs, at first gripping the banister like a lifeline. He lowered himself into chairs and stood up again, wincing. The healing hipbone slowly allowed him to place greater stress on his pelvis, and his atrophied muscles began to regain a measure of their power. Noah advanced to squats, then to squats with weights. Flexibility and strength came back, first sidling in uncertainly, and then gaining by huge plateaus. His friends came to see him regularly and made encouraging noise about his progress.
One windy afternoon in April, the doorbell rang as Noah was doing crunches on the living room floor. His father rattled his newspaper and yawned loudly. "You get it."
Noah rolled over, planted his feet at shoulder width, and pushed himself upright without bending his knees. His father lowered the paper to watch, and nodded. "You're ready."
His dad just grinned and pointed at the door. Shrugging, Noah opened it.
Jamie and Raul crowded into the house, rambunctious and excited, bringing in the smell of cold spring air. Raul poked two fingers into Noah's sternum. "It's time, cocksucker," he said. "Come outside." The paper rustled and the recliner creaked as Len stood up to join them.
Noah eyed Raul suspiciously. "What are you people up to?" But Raul just gave him a smug smile and Jamie wouldn't stop hopping from foot to foot. Noah allowed them to lead him onto the porch.
Raul's dark blue Ranger was parked behind his dad's Jeep. Tethered upright in the pickup's bed was a dirt bike. The other three stopped at the edge of the lawn and waited. Noah approached the motorcycle slowly, waiting, hoping, for something to click in his head. He stopped by the truck and reached out to touch the Yamaha's flank, hesitantly, his fingers tracing the coiled metal of the exhaust, the knurled foot pegs. Palms flat on the blue and black molding, he shut his eyes and released a long breath.
"Mine?" he asked, swallowing.
"One of them," Jamie said from behind his left shoulder. "We brought it from your digs in Georgetown 'cause we didn't have a key to your garage in Annapolis."
"Surprised?" Raul asked.
Yeah, Noah thought, surprised. And totally confused. "What am I supposed to do with this thing?" he wondered out loud. When no one said anything, he laughed bitterly and turned to face them. They were all waiting for him to do something, as if he was some curiosity on display.
His dad said, in a calm voice layered with steel that carried across the wind, "Why don't you see if you can ride it." It wasn't a request.
That, of course, was the obvious thing, the crux; he had no idea how to ride it. He thought everyone had understood that. For a moment he just stared. Then he looked back at the bike, at his father, at Raul and Jamie, at the bike again.
Well, what the hell had he been trying to heal his hip so fast for, except this? He tried a smile, and though it felt crooked and wobbly, he shoved away the fear. "Yeah, okay. Guess I should see if I can still do what I'm supposed to be so good at."
Raul untethered the Yamaha and rolled it off the tailgate. Noah walked a circle around the thing, taking its measure. Finally, he swung his leg over it. The suspension sagged and settled under his weight. He bounced, uneasy, experimental. Raul had to point out the starter, but Noah was able to kick it over the first time. Jamie showed him how to blip the throttle to keep the bike from stalling. Noah twisted and released, twisted and released, not used to the unsteady roar of the engine and the higher-pitched snarl of the open throttle.
Then something happened, maybe from the noise or the feel of the bike under him. Beneath all the layers of fear and doubt came a murky sense of knowing. It was too faint for his conscious mind to grasp but too strong to be deterred, like an undertow in deep water, felt but not seen. With a sense of unreality, Noah blindly let out the clutch, opened the throttle, set his feet on the pegs, and blasted around the perimeter of his dad's property. Pulled at by that invisible current, he wove his way through trees and launched over small rises and managed to keep the bike more or less vertical. When he finished, rode back to where his father and friends stood in a small knot in the driveway, they all started talking at once, excited, asking how it felt, did anything…come back.
"I don't have the slightest fucking idea how I did any of it," he told them. His fingers shook and his voice sounded distant in his ears, like listening to someone shout down a long, narrow tunnel.
Noah tried after that, really tried, pushing like the shrinks said he should push against the block in his mind. He strove to break in, to find himself, to bring back the person he'd been. But the closest he came was when he rode the dirt bike, when that dark instinctive undertow took over, and that scared him. When he rode, he was never really sure what he was doing, why his brain told his hands and feet to shift and accelerate, brake and turn, when it did. He didn't tell anybody about it; it was like being possessed.
Word of Noah Pike's accident and memory loss had gone public in the motocross world. Rumors abounded. The phone rang incessantly until Len switched to an unlisted number. Noah's sponsors sent people to talk to him, wary and surprised at first that he really didn't know them. He was lectured about the dangers inherent in other sports, threatened about losing his sponsorship, and finally asked, usually with curious hesitation, if it was possible to see him ride. When he obliged these people with a few laps around his dad's makeshift track, they went away happy. Maybe they were convinced that his memory loss was incidental and that he still could do what mattered. His bigger sponsors set up magazine interviews and photo shoots for the motocross season.
Noah regarded all the hoopla with a blend of curiosity and stoicism, and he went to the starting gate of his first race with much the same attitude. It was a big event, the mid-June national at Budd's Creek, Maryland. His sponsors promoted it as his comeback, and crowds of people showed up to see it. Kids pestered him for autographs in the pits, and girls tried to catch his eye.
In moto one, Noah lined up against Raul and thirty-eight other guys, listened to the cacophony as high-torque engines gunned and fell off, gunned and fell off, each racer trying to psych the others out. Noah sharpened his gaze on the dirt-clay soil in front of him, trying to gauge what his speed should be for the first turn. The gates dropped, he twisted open the throttle with a roar, and shot away with the pack.
And promptly lost his focus. The undertow of instinct that took over when he rode, that he relied upon even as he feared it, vanished. A minute ago it had shown him his first line. Frantically, he threw open his mind to it, willed it to come for the first time, found nothing and panicked. His concentration shattered. Heat, noise, and heaving dirt distracted him from the job at hand. Other riders plowed past him, shoved and bumped him into ruts and unfavorable lines. Nerveless and disjointed, Noah let them, allowed the Yamaha to run its paces for the requisite thirty minutes plus two laps, and finished thirty-sixth.
He didn't bother to go back for the second moto. He simply rode off the track and straight back to his trailer. He pulled off helmet, gloves and goggles, stripped to the waist, and sat down in the dust with his legs splayed in front of him. Thinking of failure, of loss, of needing something substantial to hold onto.
Jamie found him like that twenty minutes later, staring at the toes of his black and green riding boots. He heard her scrunching over the gravel to him, felt her hand, cool on his sun-warm shoulder.
"Did you freak?" she asked quietly.
He wanted her to leave, shook his head no.
Her fingers tightened on his skin. "You have to do it again."
"Then you were afraid."
Leave me alone, he thought. "Not afraid. Just…lost."
She was quiet a minute. Then, barely audible, she said, "Then maybe it's time you started riding for yourself. Not for who you think you should be." She waited out his silence for a minute, and then went away.
"Well damn you for being right," he muttered.
Her words stayed with him, and Noah tried again. Early the next day, he was out at Raul's favorite local private track. No crowds, no pack of riders, just a quiet Monday morning with him and Raul on 250s, Jamie on her 125, with Pete playing cheering section. The undertow was again a no-show, quiescent or maybe gone for good. His friends beat him up. They jostled him, shoved him, made him hold his ground, made him fight back. Jamie especially punished him, using her elbows, yelling at him above the whine of their throttles. He sweated, wavered, and cursed them. He crashed, but he learned--fully aware, this time, what he was doing.
The first time he broke away from the others and pointed the bike at a sixty-foot double, he just wanted to see what would happen. He powered off the lip of the uphill jump with the 250 revving into third gear. Bike and rider shot into the air like a spring uncoiled. The Yamaha roared up, up, then seemed to hover as it reached the pinnacle of the leap. In that split second of free-fall, looking out at the landing ahead of and below him, Noah knew triumph. There was twenty feet of nothing beneath him, and under that, an expanse of very hard ground. It exhilarated him, made him invincible, his trajectory a force irresistible even to gravity. He touched down smooth and perfect, and rocketed around the track for another pass.
There was no recognition, no remembering, and no returning of that controlling undercurrent. Just a calm sureness that this, now, was what he'd been made to do.