Noah paced through the pits, nervy and sweating with anticipation. Waiting out the long hours before the pro motos was the worst part. The sun climbed and the morning grew hot.
His reception was not what it had been at Buddís Creek. Here he received sidelong glances and smirks. People lapsed into guilty silence as he approached. He could hear them thinking, poor bastard, lost his nerve in that snowboard accident in Italy. Washed up. Has-been.
He smiled wanly at Jamie flitting past, telling him to pay no attention, her hand on his arm, his memory of her smell and feel still sharp. Time plodded on, the sun crawled up toward its zenith. Noah kept a damp towel over his head and sucked down Gatorade. He pulled on racing pants and boots, his chest protector, a jersey. His bike, checked for the thousandth time, revealed machinery oiled and clean and working to precision.
He felt the heat creep in beneath layers of nylon mesh and plastic and settle against his skin. Heat that would be exacerbated on the gate, from sun and the press of forty bodies and hot motorcycles.
Finally he was moving, pushing the bike to the gate as the first moto for the 250cc pro class was called. A combined sense of unreality and calm focus set in, and then he was off the gate and racing. This time it was pure instinct, pure calculation. Noah Pike rode with aggression and grace, and he won the first moto by three seconds.
He had an hour to catch his breath while the second 125 moto ran. Time ran in a liquid blur of smiles and congratulations and feverish mechanics checking over his bike, and then he was on the line again for moto two. His sweat had cooled, all arm pump had faded, and his body felt strong and ready. Seeded next to him, Raul caught his eye and flashed him a thumbs-up. Noah inclined his helmeted head, then shifted his attention forward, blew loudly through his chin guard, gave his throttle an experimental twist. The bike screamed briefly between his knees, felt rather than heard as everyone else was doing exactly the same thing. Anticipation and heat made him breathless.
The gate dropped. In one fluid movement Noah grabbed the throttle, lifted his feet to the pegs, released the clutch and pointed the bike into the slice of daylight between the two riders ahead of him. He pushed between them, elbowing the one who tried to close in on his line, and squeezed through the gap.
There was no one in front of him, just the devious open track as he roared off the gate to claim the holeshot. In a single wave, the audience stood up and shouted for him. Noah zeroed in on the first turn, clipped his right foot at the rear brake and accelerated at the apex. The Yamaha gibbered its dislike of the deep ruts, spraying a fine high roost of black dirt out of the turn. A quick acceleration brought him downhill to the first set of doubles.
Noah whipped the bike over the jump, his spine flexed and stretching with the effort. A couple quick twists of throttle: vrr! Vvrrr! Puffs of smoke for the crowd, noise to please them.
The landing was smooth but there were braking bumps in the track, impossible to see on the dark loam at such speed. They chattered his teeth and the bike bucked under him, its suspension pistoning to keep up.
Noah hollered, a wordless yell of defiance swallowed by high-pitched motorcycle engines. He brought his attention to bear again on the track, eyes hot and bright. The moto was on his tail and he held it off, taking aggressive lines through turns and short air over jumps to maintain his speed. At the end of the first lap, he charged the Tower of Power and hit in going away in fourth gear, leaped toward the sun and nailed the landing with hardly a bounce to the suspension. No one followed, and his lead grew. He heard the cheers even over the scream of his engine.
The roaring crowd began to elbow each other, grinning, saying maybe they were wrong about old Pike.
At fifteen minutes down he held a ten-second lead, all alone out front with unwavering focus. There was some arm pump by now, ache in his deltoids and triceps from keeping the front end on line on the coarse track. The black loam undulated rough as heavy surf, packed ten times harder and trying to hurt him. He was halfway done and now each breath was searing, filled with dry flying dust and heat baking off the ground, the engine, and his own body. Noah grit his teeth and ignored the weakness threading along his veins. Halfway done, and he was winning, and they were all just as tired as he was.
Five more minutes gone, his lead pushed forward by a few more yards. Ten minutes to go and he was riding on sinew and willpower, reaching deep, deep for unclaimed reserves mental and physical. Breathing was agony. Muscles stood out flexed and rigid across his arms, chest, stomach, and legs. The metal plates and new-healed bone in his pelvis hurt ferociously as his hip flexors worked overtime to control and balance the bucking Yamaha.
In a dark, still corner of his mind, buried and forgotten, something stirred. He felt it, flinched away from it, heard the thready whine of another bike coming up behind him, coming fast, some hotshot bidding for the lead. He thought, Iím going to win this race, win it on my own terms, for myself as I am now, goddammit. Now. His right hand twisted the throttle, fed power to the screaming engine.
Noah shot across the straight, smooth run beneath the announcer's tower and set his speed for the treacherous Gravity Cavity. Just a little longer, he told himself, ignoring the fire in joint and muscle, just a little more, you love this, itís your life.
Imperceptibly, the other rider got closer. Five minutes to go, five minutes and two laps and it would all be over. Hold him off, he howled at himself, hold the shadow off.
He lost his focus for a second, wavered into a rut in third gear at speed with the Tower of Power looming. The bike started to swap and the doubles came fast at him along the nefarious earth like a rock, a black rock shining in sun and snow. Pike thought, or maybe screamed shift, damn you. The bike came back under control and his clutch hand got the message in time and he heaved into fourth, hit the takeoff straight. Cleared it long and low, hunched over the motorcycle with his brain shrieking. Almost overshot the landing, but he stayed vertical.
The other rider followed him through the air and appeared at the far edge of his vision, in black leathers on a black bike. Who rode in black? But there was no time to speculate. Noah blocked him in a left turn, blocked furiously and gunned hard for open track, snarling Come on, you bastard.
And the bastard came. The barrier in his mind cracked and shattered like a dam breaking, and Noah Pike remembered. Not just his accident; not just who he was; everything. A lifetime of memories--racing, eating, fucking, partying, thousands of things done or thought or said--consumed him, battered him relentless as a juggernaut. He was helpless before it, steering the bike blind and trying to win the damn race.
Blasting around the old, evil track at thirty miles an hour, Noah closed on the time limit with his lead down to mere feet, and grappled with himself. The deluge of epiphany rammed through him like electric current, but he had to keep riding. He thought fleetingly that he really did have piss-poor timing.
Memory: sneering in the face of Italian Alps before his fall. And: the first time heíd won a National, when he took home not only the trophy but also the trophy girl, telling his friends sorry, I have other plans tonight. Rolling his eyes inwardly at the quick hurt on Jamieís face.
The clock expired; it was all out now for two laps. Pike thought, oh no you donít asshole; a contorted grin of pain and elation fixed on his face. He twisted the throttle hard and charged across the violent track, swinging his head over toward his dark opponent. The guy was no longer there.
Asshole, Noah thought, Iím the asshole. Larger than life heíd thought he must have been, and knew now with certainty that this was true, that heíd cultivated a monstrous persona that in turn became a monster, no longer an act but a defining aspect of himself, infissionable.
They flew through the rhythm section one more time and into the bell lap. Noah fought the bike, fought himself, fought to hold the lead for one more lap, just one. He slammed the big 250 around the track, a roost of black earth spraying in his wake.
He realized with shock and clarity that he hated himself. Hated the thrusting force of his returning personality; hated the withdrawn shadow of that personality heíd become. The YZ lurched and thrashed, on the edge of going down, but he didnít care. The organismís responses were sluggish and it wouldnít snap to his commands. He had to force his body, grimacing, with ruthless disregard for the physical pain. Anyway, it was nothing compared to a flayed mind. All of himself, more than he could stand, was laid bare for a scrutiny he didnít want to give. And he couldnít help but see, recoil though he might in horror and anguish.
Two lives converged and battled. Noah plunged into the Gravity Cavity one last time. With half a lap to go, he whipped the bike savagely and felt the strain all the way down to his heels. The landing knocked the wind out of his lungs. He struggled for breath, Pike not breathing, a fish out of water, a fish trying to fly. It was never going to happen. In his gut burned the desperate resolve of a trapped and fighting animal.