GhostGirl1

Ghost Girl Part Une

Even from a distance, I could tell she was a looker. She was riding her bike down the trail toward me, coming fast and pedaling hard, looking easy doing it. A serious rider, the kind I was seeing a lot of anymore. Young and getting younger all the time, it seemed. Though maybe that was just me, noticing it more.

She approached the trail's end, coming to an abrupt stop at a bench. Hopping off, she laid her bike on the ground near where my own rested on its kickstand. I stood about forty feet away on a rock jetty bordering both sides of the San Gabriel River that emptied into the Pacific Ocean a hundred yards out. She gave me quick glance, pulling off her backpack and rooting around in it, coming up with a water bottle. I watched her for a minute and then looked away, down the beach one way and up the other and then out toward the ocean. By then she was seated on the bench. I climbed down from the jetty and strolled over.

Up close, she looked even better. Usually, it was the other way around. And obviously fit, decked out in knee-length Spandex pants, a clingy top, plain sneakers, ankle socks, and a proper helmet. She gazed off as I scanned over the sleek, racing bicycle next to her, thinking how slender and all-business it looked—no frills, like lights or kickstand or water bottle—next to my thick chunk of a hybrid. Shrugging to myself, I made a start at climbing on mine and pedaling away, when she glanced up, smiling.

“I was checking out your bike,” she said. “Nice, if it's yours.” She cocked her head, making a comical face as if at the obviousness of what she'd just said. “Of course it is. It's the only bike around and you're the only guy wearing a helmet. The only person, actually.” She looked all around in an exaggerated way, as if checking. “So, how far did you ride today?”

My hands were on the handlebars, and I was in the process of swinging my leg over the saddle. I stepped back, thinking it had sounded odd the way she'd said it, as if we knew each other and she was checking my progress today against some other day. “Not that far.” I nodded in the direction of the trail, resting my bike on its kickstand again. “ About four miles.”

Turning to look, she asked, “Do you live up that way, close by?”

“Yeah, about four miles.” I had to smile then at the obviousness of what I'd just said. After a few seconds, I added, “How about you? How far did you come?”

“About ten miles.” She turned a friendly gaze at me, her dark eyes boring into my Irish blues, and I stared back—Asian, maybe Korean, but I couldn't ask—high cheek-boned and sloe-eyed, smooth skin, a typically small nose. Very pretty, and impossibly young.

“And you? Do you live ten miles away?” This abrupt conversation had come out of nowhere, and I wondered if it was going anywhere. I didn't care, though; I liked looking at her.

“Around that. I live in Lakewood.” She pointed back over her shoulder, still staring at me. Her eyes moved off mine, giving me a quick up and down glance. “You look like you've been riding all your life. Like you've been doing it forever.”

I looked down at my riding gear of old shorts, tee shirt and basketball shoes, no match for her hip outfit.

“I do?”

“That's what I love about Southern California,” she said. “Biking is a way of life. Did you always live here?”

It had been a little over a year since I'd moved to California. That's also when I'd taken up bike riding as a way to forget that place I'd left behind. But I didn't say any of that.

She asked, “Do you come down here a lot?”

She was firing questions off before I could think up adequate answers. I decided she was just a friendly, chatty kind of person, the kind I rarely met anymore. Was I ever like that, in another life before I became so closed-minded?

In fact, I didn't ride this trail very often, but I didn’t say that either, or that I preferred other places to ride in this area south of Los Angeles. “About four or five times a week,” I said.

“I’ve never seen you before. We must come at different times.” Her friendly expression turned to a grin that made her eyes crinkle up, almost shutting them, making her seem even prettier.

I asked, “What do you do in Lakewood?” She looked young enough. “Let me guess, you're a student.”

She made a quick up and down nod of her head. “Yep, that's me, your typical starving student. I just finished my BA. Now I’m going for my masters in pharm.”

“Farm? As in farming?”

She laughed. “No, pharm as in pharmacy. So what do you do, Mister Four-Miles-Away?”

I liked the way she’d said it, like she was having a little fun with me, but in a nice way. “I write computer software.”

“Software? Like apps, that kind of software?”

“No, I'm a dinosaur.”

She looked quizzical and said nothing, obviously waiting for an explanation.

“I write programs in a language they don't teach anymore. Kids coming up don't know it, so companies hire dinosaurs like me from the old days to maintain their older systems. Legacy systems, they call them. The kids want nothing to do with them. Not very hip stuff, but it pays the bills.” I added, not sure why, “I work from home.”

Her lips formed into a soundless whistle. “You work from home? How cool is that?”

I didn't say that it was another part of my new life, a change from the old one, which had included my previous job. I had quit that because it was another reminder of what I needed to forget, and moved alone from that wintry place where I'd shared a life with someone to this part of California south of L.A. It had seemed as far away as I could get without leaving the country, and working from home on a contract basis suited my new aloneness.

“I do a little programming,” she said. “What language?”

“COBOL.” I waited for the reaction.

“I've heard of it. I don't think I've ever seen it. But it's cool, if it pays the bills.” As if settling in, she squirmed her bottom around on the bench, crossing her legs and facing me. My eyes traveled down to watch this motion that was both girlish and sexy at the same time.

She'd already told me she’d finished her BA, which should make her about twenty-two. I asked, “So what are you, around twenty-two?”

“You guessed it, twenty-two. So how old are you?”

I didn't expect her to just come out with it like that. Maybe she was thinking, Older guy on the make for young Asian girls.

People always told me I looked young for my age. Though I never received that so-called compliment very well, it was better than the alternative. “I’m fifty-one.”

“You look younger.” Her eyes fixed on mine for a minute. “I’ve always liked older men.”

I felt my face turning red and hoped she didn't notice.

“I like talking to them,” she added. “Young guys all seem so immature to me. Maybe I’m just an old soul.”

We talked for a few minutes more about riding bikes. She was training for a triathlon, had recently taken it up seriously and bought the sleek racer lying next to her. “Do you do any racing?” she asked.

I'm way too old,” I said with a chuckle. “I just do it for enjoyment and exercise.”

Armed with this new knowledge, she looked me over again. “Well, you look like you’re in great shape.”

I didn't think great, but I was okay. My eyes made a quick glance over her, down and back up, taking in her short, trim body—a Korean body type, it seemed. More stocky than slender. Her riding pants hugged her legs like a second skin, ending just below the knees; muscular calves tapered to slim ankles. Her clingy top showed a flat stomach and smallish breasts. And I kept coming back to that young, pretty face topped with a helmet, with wisps of black hair peeking from the edges.

But what did I look like to her? A helmet hid my hair, mostly brown but starting to turn, with gray sideburns giving that away. My face was not so young anymore, but at least my legs were still tan and slim beneath my shorts. Was she seeing all of that and thinking, Not too bad? Or, was just seeing some amusing old guy?

We talked about our bikes for a while. To keep up the conversation, I tried thinking up pros and cons between the two, but the talk began to flag. We went silent and I thought if was time to say goodbye and ride away. She interrupted the thought.

“Do you ever go to that place?” she said, pointing to a beachside cafe a hundred feet away.

“Once or twice,” I said, turning to look. “How about you?”

“I always say I will, but I hate going alone.”

“They have a patio that looks out at the ocean.”

“It looks nice.”

She didn't say anything more, maybe waiting for me to make an offer. Was that what this was all about, angling for an invitation to lunch?

“How about I buy you a coffee and pastry, or something?” I said.

“You must be a mind reader. I'd like that.”

What would be next? Her finagling a way for me to take her to dinner and a movie? But what would be so bad about that? I thought. Other than the fact that she's almost thirty years younger.

“Okay, then.” I stood and she started walking her bike ahead of me. Following, I had my eyes fixed on her trim bottom, moving inside her skin-tight pants. At the rack alongside the cafe, I locked them together and we went inside.

She liked bagels with cream cheese and raspberry jam to go with her latte lite. That sounded good to me, and I ordered the same. I learned a little more about her over that and then a second latte, that her name was Madeleine—“call me Maddy”—and she learned mine, sort of—“call me Joe, just Joe.”

“I always liked the name Joseph,” she said. “Just the sound of it, you know?”

All my life I had liked being called Joseph, and in my former life a half-continent away, she too had liked it, the sound of it. And the way she would say it had always made me happy. Now it was another thing to forget.

“Never cared for it much, growing up,” I said.

She paused and blinked. “Okay then, just Joe.” She flashed her smile at me.

We talked, she open and chatty about her favorite music and movies in a way that conveyed little while still charming me, and me feeling at least half a fool and not caring. Finally, we did leave. She looked reluctant, as if not knowing what would come next.

I said, “I guess I'll be heading back.”

“I guess I will too. Nice talking to you. And thanks for the lunch.”

We stood alongside our bikes, and she reached over, offering her hand. I took it, feeling the warmth and small softness of it in my own big hand. Holding on for a few seconds longer, I waited, but for what? She pointed the way we’d both come from earlier. “We're going the same way. How about we ride together for a while?”

We mounted our bikes and started. I thought she might leave me in the dust, her short powerful legs churning the pedals at a triathlete’s pace. But she matched my speed, which was a little more vigorous than I was used to. I tried not to show I was getting winded.

Arriving at the junction trail that led to my place—what passed for my home for over a year—I stopped. She stopped alongside. After a few seconds to catch my breath, I said, “This is where I turn. My place is that way.” I pointed down the narrower side trail, overgrown along both sides by bushes covered with tiny yellow flowers and low-hanging trees.

Her eyes closed to slits, peering in that direction as if she were looking through a tunnel. “Don't tell me. You live in that senior citizen place down there.”

She had said that as if thinking I really was a senior citizen. I didn't answer, but my expression must have been enough.

“Wow, you're pretty young to be living in a place like that, aren't you?””

“Technically, no. You only have to be fifty.”

“But aren't most people there older?” Saying this, she was studying me.

“Some a whole lot older.” I wasn't enjoying this little back and forth. That must have been plain to her.

“Oh well,” she said, throwing out her hands in a helpless way. “But my friend works there, is the thing. At the medical center. I’ve never been there, but I’ve always been curious about it. What's it like? The place, I mean.”

I wasn't sure what to tell her. “Ordinary. A whole lot of apartments. I have a little one-bedroom, just me.”

“How about giving me a tour?” She gave me a bright smile.

I wondered what the hell was happening here. Barely nodding, I started down the side trail, with her following. Stopping at the guard shack, I told the old guy there, “The girl on the bike behind is with me.” The guard, a volunteer and resident, looked back at her and gave me a conspiratorial wink that I hoped she didn't see. I rode through and Maddy caught up, and we pedaled side-by-side on the quiet streets, past the cookie-cutter one-story apartment buildings with the tiny, manicured patches of grass and flowers in front. I tried to point out things on the way in this mile-square complex of over 8,000 souls, but there wasn’t much to point out: the clubhouse with an upstairs gym where I sometimes went to work out; the outdoor theater; how every building looked like every other one. She took it all in, seemingly interested. We wound up in front of my place, and I stopped. “This one’s mine.”

She stopped alongside and dismounted, scanning my three oversized windows, behind which, hidden by vertical blinds, was my little apartment. “You have a covered patio,” she said. “How nice. You can just park your bike up there and it’s safe.” She paused, maybe waiting for me to say something, and then wheeled hers up through narrow entry to the patio and set it against the low wall enclosing it. I followed with mine, placing it on its kickstand next to hers.

“I suppose this place is safe,” I said. “At least that’s something you can say about it.”

“But it’s nice. You can sit outside and just watch the world go by.”

That odd thought turned me suddenly gloomy, over this insular place of everyone older than me, most of whom I hardly knew. I saw myself watching them hobbling by on their daily errands to whatever occupied their warehoused time here, waiting their turn to slide off into whatever eternity had in store for them.

“You're even protected when it rains,” she said, pointing up at the low roof that extended out over the patio. She looked into my eyes, giving me her smile, and I tried smiling back, thinking my sudden gloom was showing through. But I saw no clue from her.

I unlocked the door and stood aside for her to enter, watching her pass by as she unbuckled and removed her helmet. Her short black hair, slightly matted from the helmet, looked like fine strands of silk. Despite being matted, it still curled at the ends around her neck. Somehow, it made her vulnerable in a way I couldn't put into words. I removed my own helmet. “Well, this is it. Not a whole lot. Living room and kitchen in one big space. Bathroom and bedroom in there.” I pointed down a short hallway.

She wandered that way and I followed. When she took a few steps into the bedroom, I stepped in behind her. My gloomy mood vanished, replaced by the beginning of a full-on gallop of my heart. She said again, “It’s nice. Just big enough for one person.” Her head moved around as she took in my monastic bedroom: no pictures on the wall; no socks on the floor; nothing but a dresser, a bed and a small nightstand, which held only a book, a lamp, and a digital clock. I was glad I’d made up the bed for a change that morning.

“You’re very neat too,” she said.

We stood there for a minute, and from my vantage behind her it seemed she was focusing her eyes down at the bed. I wanted to reach out and touch her, could almost feel the warmth of her. At the same time I was thinking we should go back to the safe ground of the living room. But I stayed, staring at the back of her head until she finally turned and looked up at me. I made the coward’s escape and returned to the other room. She followed behind.

Standing squarely in the middle, she scanned her all around. “I'd like to have a place just like this. Just big enough for me.” Her eyes took in the few nondescript landscapes I'd placed on one wall and some small hanging rugs of an uncertain east-Asian origin tacked up on another. She glanced over the rest of it: a flat-screen TV; a computer on a small desk next to it; a huge, comfortable recliner for my important TV watching; a dilapidated couch that had come with the apartment, that I'd never bothered replacing.

“It’s all real nice,” she said and walked over to the recliner, as if confronting it. “Now that's what I call a chair.” She tested the cushions with a few pokes of her fingers and then turned and sat, kicking off her shoes and bending over to peel off her socks, revealing her bare feet, with toenails painted a pale turquoise. My heart started its racing again. She sat back then, curling her feet beneath her. Watching, I was charmed by this wholly feminine posture.

“Yeah, this would be great,” she said, squirming her bottom around to get comfortable in the oversized chair. “Just me in a place like this. I can see it. I wouldn't have to put up with my bullying big sister anymore.” I didn't say anything and she added, “I live with her. She thinks she's my mother. Both parents dead, you know? We're all that's left.”

I wanted to ask about the parents but didn't, saying instead, “So, you don't get along with your sister?”

“It's the way she bosses me around. Like I'm twelve. She's older by seventeen years. I'm the baby who came along late.”

There didn't seem to be anything else to say on the subject, and we went silent. For lack of something better, I asked, “How about a beer?”

“That would be great.”

In the tiny kitchen, an extension of the living room, separated from it by the dilapidated couch, I grabbed two bottles of what I had, Sam Adams, and asked, holding them up in one hand by the necks, “Do you want a glass?”

“Just the bottle will be fine.” She continued to look around her, taking in my tiny apartment with smiling eyes.

I sat across from her in the only other decent chair available, the swiveling office chair I used when on the computer. We regarded one another, beer bottles in hand.

“So how long have you lived here?” she asked.

“A little over a year.”

She took that in, a thoughtful look on her face, and I waited for the next question: Where were you before that? That would be followed by, Did you always live alone? I would have to answer truthfully, though I didn't want to. But the questions never came. She continued to study me, a happy look on her face, and took another swig from her beer.

“I'd offer you something to eat,” I said. “I don't have much, though. Some chips and salsa, some cheese and crackers. I need to go shopping.”

“That's okay. Either one would be fine.”

I started toward the kitchen, but got an idea. “How about pizza instead? My favorite pizza place is only ten minutes away. I have a car.” That seemed dumb. Who didn't have a car in Southern California? She didn't say anything, though.

“Everyone loves pizza,” she said, holding up her beer. “We'll just finish these and go.”

“How about we take them with us? Just don't let any cops see us.”

Her eyes crinkled up in that grin she had, as if I'd made a great joke. We left, beer bottles in hand. On our way out I locked the two bikes together on the patio.

The pizza place, a by-the-slice hole in the wall, was on a side street off the Pacific Coast Highway in the little beach community near my apartment. Still wearing our biking gear, we ordered at the counter, two slices each with a soft drink, and took a booth near the entrance. The place was empty of customers when we'd arrived, but they started drifting in, boy-girl pairs and families with kids, and I noticed the looks we were getting—The old guy and his young, pretty Asian girlfriend. I didn't care. I hadn't felt this good in a very long time.

We lingered after finishing our slices, for too long I realized when we stepped outside. The afternoon light was beginning to fade, and I knew it would be dark before long. In the car, driving back, I said, “I didn't realize how late it was. It'll be dark soon and your bike doesn't have lights. That could be a problem.”

She looked out her side window, saying nothing.

“It wouldn't be safe,” I said. “Maybe I should drive you home. You can come back and pick up your bike tomorrow.”

She didn't say anything to that either. By then we were approaching the main gate to the complex. I pulled the car over on the busy road and stopped on a dirt patch and looked over at her.

“I could just stay at your place,” she said, making it sound as if she would take it back, that it was only a joke if I didn't like the idea. But I didn't say anything, watching her. “I could sleep on your couch,” she added.

The thought of her on the sagging hand-me-down couch with the springs straining to pop through, that I'd never replaced because I never had any visitors, embarrassed me. “It's really uncomfortable. I just wish I had a better one.”

“I can sleep anywhere. I could sleep on the floor. It wouldn't bother me.” She showed her infectious smile, encouraging me.

I thought for a minute. “I do have this old air mattress.” I'd almost forgotten about it, since stowing it and some other camping gear I had in the outdoor shed next to the car park, all of it forgotten since I no longer had anyone to go camping with. “It would be better than the floor. It's actually quite comfortable.”

“Well, that sounds great then.”

Back at the apartment, she stood watching as I unpacked the rolled-up air mattress from the box it had been stowed in for too long, laying its deflated length on the floor between my big chair and the TV, hoping the vinyl hadn't sprung any leaks. She looked suddenly uneasy, perhaps having second thoughts. Maybe now she was reconsidering the option of me driving her home.

I was on one knee looking up at her, waiting for to say something. Nothing came and I switched on the built-in, battery-operated pump, and we both stood watching the thing slowly transform from a rumpled, shapeless mass to a plump, passable imitation of a real mattress. Switching the pump off, I said, “It really is comfortable. I have extra blankets and a pillow.”

She stared down at the mattress, still looking uncertain. I asked, “Are you sure this is going to be okay?”

She nodded without expression.

“What about your sister? Shouldn't you call her to tell her you won't be home?”

Her expression changed to a frown. “I should just let her worry. But maybe I should call her. Knowing her, she's liable to call the cops and report me as a missing person.”

I handed her my old cell phone, all I had left to communicate to the outside world, other than my computer and the Internet. She took it, saying. “I'll just go out on your patio to make the call. Reception's probably better out there anyway.”

I took that to mean she didn't want me listening in. She went out into the fading light, closing the door behind her. I watched her through the open blinds, dialing and then putting the phone to her ear. Busying myself then, I retrieved spare sheets and a blanket from my bedroom closet, adding one of the two pillows from my bed to the pile. When I returned she was standing inside the door, looking at me, the phone in one hand at her side. She held it out to me, and I thought she wanted me to talk to the sister. But I saw when I took it that the phone was turned off.

“So what did you tell her?”

“That I'm staying at a girlfriend's house.” Her eyebrows went up and her mouth twisted into a wry smile.

We took up our former positions, she in my big chair, her sneakers planted on the floor now, and me in my desk chair. The inflated mattress was between us, and that seemed to change things. I offered her another beer, which she declined—“One's my limit”—and we talked of nothing—nothing I could remember later anyway—while it grew dark outside. Time passed, though I wasn't sure how much. It still seemed early when she said, “I'm pretty tired. You mind if I take a shower before going to bed?”

I stared at her, imagining her in my bathroom stripping off her riding gear and stepping into the shower stall, turning on the water and standing beneath it, water running over her naked body.

“Okay,” I said.

“Do you have a tee shirt I could wear? An extra-large one.”

We both sat for a minute saying nothing, then I got up and went into the bedroom to find the biggest extra-large tee shirt I owned. Returning, I handed it to her and said, “Towels are in the closet in the bathroom. Soap and shampoo are in the shower stall.”

She nodded and got up and walked past me, showing that uncertain look again. She must have been nervous. Not the only one. She entered the bathroom and closed the door behind her, and it was silent for a minute. Then I heard water running. It seemed to run for a long time, and then it stopped. A minute later she emerged and stood in the doorway, her hair matted and shiny with wetness, but still curled at the edges. Her feet were bare and the tee shirt covered her only to the tops of her thighs. My eyes were on her face, but I plainly saw, at the edge of my vision, the gleam of her bare legs in the dim light. She shrugged, not moving.

After a minute I said, “I guess I should take a shower too. I'm kind of sweaty from the ride.”

She moved aside and stood with her arms down at her sides as if preventing the tee shirt to ride up any higher.

In the bathroom I saw that she'd neatly piled her riding gear on the vanity next to the sink and set her sneakers and socks on the floor beneath. I stripped down and stepped into the shower stall, the same space she'd occupied minutes before.

Later, when I came out, wearing nothing but my usual after shower robe, the lights in the living room were already out. In the dimness I could make out a shapeless form lying on the mattress, blankets covering all of her, including part of her face so that only the top of her head showed. It wasn't that late but she looked as if she were already asleep. I saw no choice then but to go into the bedroom and climb into bed, convinced I would get no sleep that night.

In the other room, after closing the door behind me, I put on clean boxers, my usual sleeping attire, turned off the light and slipped into bed. I lay there for a long time, unable to gain sleep. But I must have drifted off. A knock on the bedroom door woke me. My head came up and I saw the door slowly open. Her dark, tee-shirted form stood in the doorway, backlit against the dim glow from a hallway skylight. She whispered, “Are you awake?”

I sat up, struck mute by the sight of her.

She entered and came over to stand next to the bed. “I couldn't sleep.” We both said nothing for a minute, and she whispered in a way so faint, yet I clearly heard, “Would you mind if I got in with you?”

I pulled back the covers and she slid in next to me and we lay side-by-side in the dark without touching, my blood coursing through me. I wasn't sure what exactly would come next, but I was sure it wouldn't involve sleep. And I didn't know if I wanted it. Then she turned toward me. Automatically I slipped my arm around her and her head came over to snuggle against me. Her hand came to rest on my chest and her leg slipped over one of mine. We lay there breathing. My heart was thumping and I was certain she could hear it, her ear to my chest. Then, after a while, an amazing thing happened: My breathing and my heartbeat slowed and the commotion that had started inside my boxer shorts subsided. I could tell by the sound of her breathing she had quickly drifted off, and I remembered the way it used to be, falling asleep next to a woman, lulled by the slow sound of her breathing, my arm around her and her head snuggled onto me, feeling the warmth of her body against the length of me. I began to drift off.

Then it was morning, with light showing at the window and that same feeling of amazement that it had happened that way. The next thing I noticed was that she wasn't next to me, and I thought she might have slipped out and left at first light. But I heard sounds in the kitchen. I put on my robe and went out to see her, still barefoot and tee-shirted, standing next to the sink sipping coffee. “Hi,” she said, holding up the cup. “I made coffee. Want some? And I found the cheese and crackers.” She nodded to a plate next to her on the countertop. “Breakfast. Hope that was okay.”

“Sure.” I pulled the robe tighter, still charmed by the sight by her turquoise-painted toenails. I poured coffee into a cup and stood drinking it, leaning against the countertop next to her, looking out through the opened blinds at the morning sun slanting onto my patio. Both our bikes stood out there waiting.

“This has really been great,” she said. “But I should be going.”

“I suppose so.” But I really wanted to say something else, like I wish you could stay. But what would happen then?

A few minutes later she emerged from the bathroom, dressed in her biking gear. Her helmet still lay on the floor next to the chair where she'd left it. “Well,” she said, as if there was nothing left to say and took a few steps toward the front door, bending to grab her helmet on the way. Then she stopped and turned back. “How about we exchange email addresses? We’re friends, right?” The smile returned to her face.

“Right, right,” I said, thinking she might have asked to exchange cell-phone numbers instead. But she hadn't. I grabbed a small pad and a pen from my desktop and handed it to her. She wrote something and handed it back—MaddyGirl, her email handle at a well-known Internet server. I tore off the page and wrote my address on another page and gave it to her.

“I’ll ride with you, back to the gate,” I said. “It’s easy to get lost here, every place the same.”

“It’s okay. I have a good memory.” She'd said it as if she really meant it, that she didn't want me to go with her. Would it embarrass her, I wondered, to be seen in the harsh morning light after obviously spending the night at the old guy's apartment?

“I want to do it anyway. Besides, you can't get away that easy. I locked our bikes together last night.”

She looked out through the blinds. “Oh, right.”

In the bedroom, I threw on shorts and a tee shirt. My basketball shoes and helmet were in the living room where I'd left them. I retrieved fresh socks and went back out to where she waited. She watched, appearing anxious to get away, as I put on the shoes and socks. We went outside and I unlocked the bikes. We mounted them and rode toward the same gate we'd entered yesterday. That seemed now like a long time ago. At least the same old guy of the conspiratorial wink wasn't manning the guard station at the gate.

The last I saw of her, while I straddled my bike just outside the gate, was a view of her back, seemingly broader in retreat as she pedaled away down our side trail. I stared at her bottom on the narrow saddle of her bike, feeling a thump of my heart, until she disappeared from view.

I wondered if I'd ever hear from her again, if the whole thing hadn't been a ruse, from the time she'd asked if I'd give her a tour of the community, even clear back to when I'd first met at the trails end. Maybe she'd just needed something to eat and a place to crash, time away from her older sister. Now she was going home, to Lakewood. Of course I remembered that.

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