“They say this is the boy’s bike…”
It certainly looked old enough to fit the legend. Every inch of the frame was rusted metal and bulky, nothing like the streamlined road bikes which they all straddled. The relic rested haphazardly against a long forgotten wooden fence post that at one time marked the edge of a farm that used to be here. Every ten feet or so, another gnarled wooden post stood, creating an eerie border, cutting through the woods. The six boys dropped their bikes to the forest floor and crowded around the rusted figure.
“Wait, what boy? I thought you said the ghost was an old man?” Sean tugged his backpack off his shoulders and tossed it down next to his bike.
“It is, newbie,” Lincoln sighed. He stepped in front of the bike, centering himself in front of the group of them. It was obvious from the moment Sean first walked into Timberland Middle School that Lincoln was the leader of the seventh grade. Sean knew if he wanted to fit in, he needed to be friends with Lincoln. “His name was Willard Grady. They say he kidnapped kids and brought them to the river and drowned them.”
“Why?” Ezra had spoken up. Sean was sure this wasn’t the first time the other boys had heard the story, but Lincoln was in showmanship mode and all of them stood enthralled.
“He was crazy.” Lincoln squatted and touched the rusted bike frame reverently. “They say this bike belongs to his last victim. He disappeared the same day as Old Man Grady, nobody knows what happened to either of them; they say their bodies were never found.”
Lincoln stood back up and swung his bag around so it rested on his stomach. He dug in and pulled out a handful of things. “They say Old Man Grady still haunts these woods, ringing an old bicycle bell as he prowls for more kids to drown in the river. Sean, your dare, should you be so brave as to accept, is to walk to the edge of the river, light this candle, and shout out to Old Man Grady that you’re here and not afraid of him.”
Lincoln shoved the items into Sean’s hands: a white pillar candle, a pack of matches, and a flashlight. Sean didn’t relish the thought of walking into unfamiliar woods alone less than a week after moving to a new town, but he wanted to be part of the group, he wanted to show them he wasn’t scared. “Each of you has done this before?”
The five other boys emphatically nodded and added words like “loads of times” but somehow Sean didn’t believe them. “Ok, well how far until the river?”
“Walk for about 10 minutes in that direction and you’ll see it, you can’t miss it.”
Sean loaded the candle and matches into his bag which he slung back on his shoulders. He stood at the rusted bicycle, hesitant to cross the invisible barrier where the fence used to be. With one last glance over his shoulder at the guys, he took his first step deeper into the forest.
He told himself not to look back, that looking back was a sign of fear and weakness, but he couldn’t help himself and, after enough time had passed, glanced back to see if they were still there. Although he was far enough away that he couldn’t really tell them apart, he figured the one leaning against a tree was Lincoln with Thomas, Ezra, Nicholas, and Jace all sitting on the forest floor in front of him, the beams of their flashlights waving around madly as they fought with them. Even though it was only dusk, the dense canopy of the forest made it necessary for them to need flashlights.
He turned away from them, thankful that they hadn’t left him as a cruel prank, and continued deeper into the dark woods. Sean told himself that he was almost thirteen, almost a man, and wasn’t going to be scared of a story. Everything was still and quiet this far in, the only sound is the constant babbling of water from somewhere ahead of him. The flashlight Lincoln had given him wasn’t anywhere near as strong as the one he had at home, it’s beam weakly lighting up a small patch in front of him as he walked.
A small sigh of relief escaped from his dry lips as his flashlight finally reflected off the moving water ahead of him. He was almost done. At the water’s edge, there were several boulders. He walked up to the largest of the three, it stood about chest high and he placed the candle from his bag on top. Sean twirled the matchbook between his fingers, contemplating his options. He had made it to the river, he could walk back and say he did it. He was far enough away from them that even if he yelled out to the ghost like he was supposed to, they wouldn’t hear him.
But did he really want to solidify his new friendships with a lie? Before he could think on it too much more, he struck the match and lit the candle. It wasn’t much, but the small flame helped make the forest seem not as dark. This was it. All he had to do was say some words and he could head back to his new friends. He cleared his throat and decided to scream as loud as he could, hoping that Lincoln and the others could hear him.
“Old Man Grady! Here I am! And I’m not afraid of you!!” It would have felt empowering, if his voice hadn’t cracked in the middle of the word afraid. Was it from fear or puberty? If he thought the forest was quiet before, it was as if all sound had been blocked now. Even the river seemed to quiet down.
A twig snaps somewhere to his left. He sweeps the beam of the flashlight in the direction, anxiously shining it’s light around searching for the source of the noise. It was a deer, or a rabbit or something, he told himself. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He had done what he needed to. He blew out the candle and left it where it sat.
As he turned to head back, his flashlight flickers, briefly engulfing him in the darkness of the forest, before coming back on. Sean never thought he would be so happy to have that weak stream of light. Not wanting to be there any longer than he needed to be, he heads off back out of the forest, faster than he had walked in.
Brrring! The wind carried the distant noise to his ears, the sound which in any other situation would have been completely normal. But here, in the middle of the woods, the ring of the bicycle bell causes every inch of his skin to form goose bumps. Icy water had replaced his blood and he was colder than he ever thought possible. His chin quivers and he rationalizes that it’s probably just Jace, they said he was a prankster, so he probably added the bit about the bell so he could scare him. Yeah, that was it.
And yet his feet stomp just a little faster. Something fast breaks through the cylinder of light cast by his flashlight. It took a fraction of a second. Did he imagine that? Maybe. But instinct takes over; his fingers and toes tingle as his body is flooded with the “flight” hormone. Sean takes off running at full speed, barely avoiding trees.
He can hear his heart pounding, louder than he’s ever heard before. And yet over that deafening noise, there is something else. The sound is unmistakeable. Something is behind him and catching up.
It’s too risky to turn and look but he has to know. Has to. Would he turn and see Jace red faced and laughing? Or would he see the ghost of a madman?
He glances over his shoulder and his blood turns to ice again. It’s not Jace.
But it’s not Old Man Grady either.
The figure chasing after him has the appearance of a boy, younger than him, but not by much. He wears overalls and his skin is sallow and gray. Even though he is keeping pace, his feet never touch the ground. He merely hovers along behind him. His arms are outstretched, reaching for Sean.
A part of him always thought if he did see a ghost, it would be see-through, like a fog. This apparition behind him was scarier. It seemed to have weight to it, as if it could really hurt him. Even though his legs ached with exhaustion, he pushed harder, trying to put distance between himself and the boy.
Up ahead, the trees thinned and he could see the beams from five flashlights lazily floating around. An unintelligible scream escapes his throat. Part warning, part cry for help. Instantly all five flashlights find him. He can hear them screaming “hurry up!”
He can’t explain it, but Sean knows that if he can get past the old fence post, he’ll be safe.
A raspy voice right behind him shouts “Run!”
He’s close enough to make out who is who in the dark, he can even see the shape of the fence post. He’s so close, he’s going to make it, he’ll be safe in just a few more seconds.
Before he can reach the invisible boundary, he is pushed to the ground from behind. The wind is knocked out of him and he lays there, gasping, listening to the frantic screams of Lincoln and the others just feet away.
Cold fingers wrap around his ankles and with a sharp tug, begin to drag him back into the woods. His fingers claw for purchase in the forest floor, but find nothing but loose dirt and twigs. Sean lifts his head to see the five boys gathered next to the post, screaming to him. A sixth boy in overalls stands nearby, watching Sean with sad eyes. Without thinking, he kicks at whatever is holding him, glancing backwards just long enough to see the surprised look on the old man’s face.
Scrambling on hands and knees, he heads for the fence post. The ghost of the little boy no longer scares him. Instead it waves it’s arms as if to say “yes, this way, come on!”
Kicking off with his back feet, he reaches an arm out towards Lincoln to pull him to safety but it’s at that moment when Willard Grady’s ghost grasps his ankle again. Sean’s arms wildly reach out for anything to grab ahold of and they grasp the rough metal of the old bike frame. Before he can get dragged in again, Lincoln, Jace, Nicholas, Thomas, and Ezra each grab the other end of the bike.
With two hard yanks, they manage to free Sean from the ghost’s grip and pull him to their side of the fence. They lay in a pile, breathing raggedly, and watch as Old Man Grady stalks back and forth along the inside of the invisible fence before giving up and heading back into the woods.
The young boy still stands off to the side, smiling at them. He glances to the rusted bicycle tangled up in their arms. With a wink at them, a bicycle identical to the one they cling to, except without the rust, appears. The young boy hops on and turns to ride off into the woods, with a last brrrrring of his bicycle bell as a goodbye.
All short stories in the “100 prompts” tag will be written using the flash fiction prompts list on Eva Deverell’s Creative Writing Blog. They will all be stand-alone short stories unless otherwise noted. Check out the Story Index for more. (Image is from: Here)
This story was written using Prompt # 15: Write a story that begins and ends with a bicycle.