Noah spent another three weeks training on open courses, alone or with his friends, sometimes under the critical eyes of the media and trainers, sometimes not. His riding style grew smoothly aggressive. His lines were clean, his cornering sharp, and he cleared bigger and bigger gaps with confidence, whipping the bike nervy and graceful, surprising even Raul with his jumping ability: "Goddamn, dude, I've never seen you whip it upside down."
He moved back into his apartment in Georgetown, and spent time boxing and storing mementos from his previous life. The things he found--racing photos, shark's teeth, a couple of snapshots of him with some Vegas showgirl, a pair of lacy panties--made him uncomfortable, reminders left by a stranger.
He was dragged back into the motocross scene, parties and promotional events. Most interesting to observe was the way people encouraged and expected him to behave. They reacted as if he had been the life of the party, always doing or saying something outrageous.
Sometimes guys would come in with an old grudge, looking for a fight. Some prank he'd pulled, taken the wrong way: "Now what you need's an ass-whupping, hotshot. Amnesia, what shit is that, give me a fucking break." A few of them couldn't be talked down and threw punches. Some of them connected and then Noah would fight back, furiously: "I don't even know you, asshole. Get out of my face!"
Women would watch him, whisper to each other and laugh, toss their hair teasing and coy. They'd saunter past, brush against his hip. Or bump into him at the keg: "Oh, excuse me, I didn't see you; aren't you Noah Pike?" Eyes wide with feigned innocence, their hunger stark and ugly. Did I really fuck women like that? he asked Raul, and Raul laughed and said yeah, two or three of them are here tonight.
Faces became familiar, seen over and over in the same circles. But to Noah, his former rambunctious self was the true alien. He didn't pick fights, didn't draw attention to himself, didn't take girls into dark unfamiliar bedrooms for some quick nookie, more quickly forgotten.
Too many things were already forgotten. He kept what he knew of himself to himself, figuring things out as he went along, and observing. Always observing. A new self-awareness began to take shape, slowly, like a lump of clay becoming a recognizable statue by degrees in a stop-motion film. Form grew out of function.
Mostly, though, he just rode, and reveled in the freedom of knowing his bike, moving it as an extension of himself. There was no longer any interference from the dark current in his mind that had initially guided him, and he was grateful.
Noah's second race was a national, at the black-soil horror of Unadilla. It was an old, old track, legendary and surly in its roughness. Rumors abounded that a new monster jump was being built, higher and more technical than Englishtown's huge Elevator.
There was still pressure to live up to his superstar image, but that didn't bother him too much. Most of it came from media hype, and Noah paid scant attention. The Unadilla race held all his focus; his effort there would be for himself, not the glory of his former persona.
His hold on who he was, or who he was becoming, grew more stable every day. Looking into mirrors, he wondered less and less what the old Noah had thought of that reflection, saw only the green eyes, more sober and guarded than they had seemed staring out of the photos on his dad's walls. His hair was longer now, dark blond as Jamie had predicted, curling lazily on his skull.
In his mind, the barricade still lurked. He felt it, palpable and unyielding as a block of stone. Locked on the other side of it were his memories, prisoners of amnesia, or maybe they were dead now, and rotting.
Old scars he could see on his body teased him: two thin ones on his upper lip, a deep pucker over his right shoulder blade, dimpled hollows in his shins. Like his former personality, he knew they were there, but he didn't know what had caused them.
As time passed, he stopped thinking about these things unless reminded. And the reminders were painful. They made him flinch the way reopening one of his scars might, the hurt always deep and shocking. The Thursday before the Unadilla race, after turning off the bathroom light on his reflection, he rejoined his friends in his living room. They were drinking beer and telling stories.
"…Got so jacked up from that, couldn't walk for a week." Pete was laughing, doubled over, unable to speak.
"What?" Noah sat down next to Jamie on the sofa.
She turned to him, eyes crinkled with laughter, teeth gleaming. "Oh … something that happened to you a few years ago, showing off when you didn't really know what you were doing."
"This cocksucker nutted himself trying to do a cliffhanger in front of the Fox t-shirt girls," Raul roared. Tears ran down his face and he pushed them away with a meaty paw. "Tell it like it is, girl, don't pussyfoot around."
There it was, his larger-than-life past mocking him, laughing at him out of the faces of his friends. Noah could not live up to such an image. He supposed they must still want him to, as they talked incessantly about it whenever they all got together. Despair sank a hook in his belly.
He wondered, not for the first time, if he rode his dirt bike because he hoped to regain some of the legend that had been Noah Pike. As much as he wanted to be accepted for who he was now, and as much as he enjoyed riding now that he had his own control over it, that distasteful idea still rang true. These were his friends, and perhaps he needed to prove himself to them.
Noah brooded on this until they left, feeling what an effort it was to lift his mouth in a grin whenever the subject of his past came up. He waited tiredly as they filed out the door, all but Jamie, who stood beside him in the foyer. Her jacket was half-slung over her shoulders, her brow furrowed. Noah forced himself to pay attention. Wake-up time was four in the morning for the long drive to Unadilla, and he was tired and depressed.
"What's up?" he asked, suddenly uncomfortable under her scrutiny, his skin prickling from her closeness.
Her violet eyes were hooded, and she said carefully, "I just wanted to tell you that no matter how much everyone talks about your past like it's some great and wonderful thing, I'm your friend, Noah. And it's weird saying it, but--" she bit her lower lip. "I like you better for who you are than for who you were." He stared at her and she laughed self-consciously. "I--wow. I'd have never said that to you six months ago." She groped behind her for the doorknob, banged her fingers against it. "I guess I'd better go."
But she didn't move, and it only took a moment of hesitation before he reached for her. Jamie didn't resist as he tightened his arm, brought her close and kissed her. Her mouth was sweet and soft, and Noah watched dark lashes close over her eyes. Her body pressed against him, quick and light and shy.
She moved to break apart and he let her, smiling at the radiance in her face. Jamie whispered she had to go and backed out the door. He went to bed alone, still feeling her mouth, thinking that life held endless possibilities.
Unadilla was a circus. By their arrival for pro practice Friday morning, vendor booths already dotted the field beyond the announcer's tower, hawking everything from racer-autographed t-shirts to three-dollar hotdogs. Raul, Jamie, and Noah spent six hours on the track, bounding through its ruts, learning the devious sharp turns, trying out the new Tower of Power jump. Its landing was tricky; the course was flat there, but the landing was way below the takeoff point, so the massive jump behaved as a downhill double. It messed with the eyes.
Saturday, the amateurs raced. A few of them got hurt trying for too much air off the Tower. Noah and his friends rested and watched, relaxing as much as possible.
Saturday night, Noah found himself alone in one of the hotel rooms with Jamie. He kissed her again, deeper this time, and this time there was no talk of leaving. Noah hadn't realized how much he'd wanted to see her naked until she stood that way in front of him, her skin blued and shadowed by the muted light from the windows. He listened to her shallow, rapid breathing, watched the rise and fall of her small, firm breasts and the pull of skin across her ribs and stomach. Tentatively, he reached out and stroked her belly with his fingertips, feeling the deep muscles there contract. His arm slid around her waist and he pulled Jamie down on top of him, kissing her, hearing her moan softly into his mouth. When they came together more than an hour later, Noah buried his head in the hollow of her neck, needing no other memories of sex to enjoy this one.
There was no talk of commitment, or of the future. They didn't need it. Noah and Jamie slept intertwined, with sweat cooling on them, and it was enough.
Sunday morning dawned clear and warm, the sun feeding its rays to the grass poking above the muddy infield. All kinds of people showed up for the big national. They thronged beneath the tower and across the pastureland in a multicolored, shifting patchwork: fans fourteen to forty wearing No Fear or Fox shirts or the jersey of their favorite rider, parents chasing hyper kids just tall enough to sit their first mini bike, girls in bikini tops and short shorts trolling the pit area for racers sporting national numbers, harried team managers shouting last-minute instructions to their riders. And the racers themselves, looking like futuristic warriors in their helmets and body armor. Knobby-tired dirt bikes sported molded plastic effects that gave them the sharp, graceful appearance of raptors.
And in the middle of this festive, pastoral setting, monstrous and ugly with its soft black dirt, the track waited. It rose and fell, coiled around itself serpentine and sinister, groomed deceptively smooth. Tight turns necessitated hard braking, and the soil ground into ridges beneath knobby tires. By the end of practice, the black soil had sunk into treacherous ruts and braking bumps. After the third qualifying moto, it was bone-crunching rough.
The Gravity Cavity jump bowl claimed a few minor victims, but it was the Tower of Power that had most of the riders skittish. It stood forty feet steep, a huge mound of black dirt, squatting in place of the old uphill run to the finish. Seventy feet out the landing waited, the finish flags stretched along it. Most riders hadn't gotten the nerve to jump the thing in practice and just hit small air off the top, riding down the steep pitch and jumping off the landing ramp instead.