Fifteen-year-old Payton Lord peddled faster and faster, small legs pumping high, knees thumping her chest. The burn in her calves worked its way up her thighs and into her hips, but she pressed on, pushing Ruby, her new ten-speed, to its limits. She mustn’t be late. Not today, or her stepdad would end sleepovers at Sally’s, something Payton couldn’t bear. The two had been inseparable since kindergarten even though Payton’s stepfather disapproved of their friendship. Quinn wasn’t the sort to approve of anyone in his family—even a step-daughter—spending time with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
Payton tried to concentrate on her surroundings, anything to forget the pain in her legs. Why hadn’t she left sooner? She glanced at her new watch, a birthday present from Quinn, an expensive reminder to be home on time. No excuses now, he had repeated until she wanted to throw the gift in his face. Everything came with a condition. Who cared if she wasn’t like most kids glued to their iPad or iPhone? She owned both, again thanks to her stepdad, and both had the ability to tell time, as he constantly lectured her.
As the minutes passed, the afternoon grew warmer and a suffocating humidity set in, making the ride miserable as Ruby glided downhill toward the covered bridge on Bear Creek. She sped across and cruised under the highway overpass, mindful of the slick surface. Her wheels churned up sheets of water, drainage from a nearby culvert as it emptied into the creek. Why did the ride to Sally’s house never feel as long as the trip home?
Home. The word had a comforting tone, but there wasn’t anything comforting about it. She brushed the thought aside and concentrated on the switchbacks. These trails gave her an escape from reality. If she made a stupid move and it ended in a serious injury, she’d be kept from them for too long.
As she neared Bear Creek Park, the duck ponds popped into view—the halfway point. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, enjoying the musky scent of rotting vegetation as she winged her way east. Only she, many said, liked the rank odor of decomposing leaf matter. It reminded her of good times, hikes along the Trinity River levees, fall leaves trapped in the stagnant pools of water. To her, these were life’s treasures, nature at its finest.
Payton jetted past the manmade lakes. No mallards. Only Canadian geese dotted the banks. At one time, these birds were harbingers of spring, but now they had made Texas their permanent home.
She broke from the shade to a hot June sun. It seemed like just yesterday when the city had decorated the trees along the trails with gauzy spider webs, skeletons, and all sorts of scary stuff in preparation for Fright Night, none of which spooked her. The only thing she loved more than Halloween was summer, spending time outdoors with all nature offered—close to God’s creatures, basking under a cloudless sky, hiking in the woods, or searching for interesting bugs to photograph with her new digital SLR.
As she descended a curve in the trail, Payton pulled free of her toe clips, rested her forearms on the handlebars, and coasted down the winding path. Sweat beaded on her upper lip and dripped from her brow.
She blew by her old school and rumbled over another wooden bridge. The creek below lurked dark and ominous. The next stretch, all uphill, loomed ahead, but first she had to negotiate the sharp curves of the second underpass. The park workers had installed a mirror at the entrance to the narrow trail, but people still got hurt at least once a month. She coasted, ready to brake for walkers or rollerbladers, although she didn’t expect many at this hour of the day.
Overhead, the rush of cross-traffic on Bear Creek Parkway drowned out most noise as she sailed out of the crammed underpass and began her ascent. She peddled harder, harder, harder, quickly building speed. The momentum launched her up the first slope and halfway up the second hill, the ache in her legs almost unbearable, but at the top of the rise, the payoff awaited. From there, it was all downhill to home.