She had lost her ride.
The barely-there young woman runs her hand along the frame, and then feels the shallow ruts of the tires. She is surprised her fingers don’t come back covered in road filth. She has never seen a bike like this. And the street corner where she stands is both familiar and not – dark, reflective with a rain that is no longer falling, and a glow from the streetlight above. She’s not totally sure how she got here.
The bike at the corner is painted white. Tied up to a telephone pole so that it won’t ever fall over. A Hallmark sadness drapes the frame: cards with bluebirds and lilies and cursive words about heaven are laminated and taped to the bicycle. Flowers – real and fake, fresh and wilted, lay where the tires meet the weeds and grass. A photograph, also laminated. A smiling girl – no more than twenty-five. The bike looks like it’s made of plaster, but it’s real – made of aluminum. Handlebars, water bottle holder, frame, tires and spokes. All of it is real – a three dimensional eulogy. Someone died here.
Someone was wearing a helmet. Someone mounted a flashing light on the back and front of her bike. Someone was riding home from the library, having picked up three books that were on hold. Someone was going on a date later. Someone saved money from a late night bartending gig at the pub up the street and daytimes spent babysitting the neighbors’ children – picking them up from school, making construction paper ladybugs with them, trying to sort out new math from the math of her own childhood. Someone saved every dollar to buy that bike. Someone was happy, though her parents were divorced. Someone had three older siblings who doted on her instead of pinning her down and only occasionally teasing her about being a millennial. Someone had a cat named Arnold, forgot to brush her teeth often but flossed daily, loved Thai food, and hated pizza. But now someone was dead. And her real bike was a mangled thing, all twisted metal and expectations.
The ghost bike is a blanched image of her bike as it was before. Before the Prius silently came upon her from the back and knocked the tire just so, nudged her body up off the seat, and disconnected rider from bicycle.
She had forgotten all this and only recalled the brisk fall wind in her hair, the way her ears were the coldest while the rest of her was sticky and hot with effort. The click, click of changing gears, like writing a symphony. She knew which adjustments went with which land crescendos and how to ride down, barely braking, like you could ride forever.
Front wheel tipping, back wheel following, just enough. Road rash. Helmet pushed back – slightly, but just enough, right arm hitting the pavement first, right leg twisting and foot catching in the spokes of her back wheel, just enough. Left leg following, left knee bone pushing out, just enough, jutting it out further than the other leg bones, snap, snap. Forehead hitting a rock that had been part of a retaining wall, but had fallen loose.
Into the blackberries goes her body – scratch, scratch, shudder, slam. Prius slowing down, turning on brights, turning off brights, window rolling down, then speeding up, turning a corner, all quietly. So quietly. Blood turning jam-like. Heartbeat slowing down. A passer-by walking her corgi asking are you okay? Are you okay miss? Can you hear me? Sweetie? Are you okay? Hang on. Sirens. The melancholy song of those beautiful women, the passage into death.
Now, tied to the telephone pole is a bike painted white. Ghosts aren’t white at all. They are no colors. Or all colors. And the dead cyclist adjusts the teddy bear that has been tied to the handlebars, its fur is damp and matted from rain. No one can see her and they think the wind is moving the flower petals, but really she is blowing them. Sniffing to see if they smell. To see if she can smell them. She cannot.
They call them ghost bikes. They haunt busy intersections or curves on lone dark country roads. Revenants. The flowers and plush animals keep coming. The cars keep coming. The lives keep going.
A Prius drives by. Slows. Stops. Carries on. The ghost girl stares. Then uses her teeth to gnaw on the rope holding the bike to the pole. She is surprised she’s able to free it; it’s like she thought she’d be powerless. She places the flowers and her photograph on the ground, lifts one leg, places her foot on a pedal, pushes down and rides off, the ghost bike and its rider.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and will be in the 2019 Best Short Fictions anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,. Image: Cyclist, Natalia Goncharova, 1913