The moment his head cleared, Turner realized that he still had a long way to go; he was halfway to school at best. Pushing as hard as he could, his legs got weaker the more he willed them to pedal. “I can’t lose this stupid race,” he said, and the mere thought of it made him desperate and angry and hungry all at once.
He hit Congress Avenue, steered right, and began the long descent to the river. The speed he’d reached flying down Burton was nothing compared to the velocity he was hitting now, and the sound of the tires spinning over the asphalt moved him from thrilled to surreal to terrified. The first two lights were green and he wondered how he would have stopped for them if they hadn’t been.
Turner held the bars with a sweaty death grip as he went faster and faster. Finally a light turned yellow. “I can make it,” he told himself, and jumped out of the saddle. His overweighted backpack shifted up on his shoulders and caused the bike to wobble. In a panic he sat back down, barely bringing the flying machine under control just as he hit the stoplight, which was now red, red, red.
Cross traffic honked but he barely heard it. He’d committed to either death or making the light or both, and the fury of a fool in a pick-up meant nothing. On he raced to the river. Once he crossed it, the road began to go gradually up again, and the confluence of exhaustion, the slight grade, and intersections barred by completely red lights and cross traffic slowed him to a crawl. Turner thought about the school bus and tried to estimate where it was. He couldn’t be too far ahead or too far behind, even with the mishaps. It would be down to the wire.
Speeding by the capitol building he hit Lavaca, then MLK, then Guadalupe, and then he was on campus, still giving it everything he had but feeling the listlessness of the bike beneath him as he mashed the pedals with spongy legs. He’d given it everything he had, and somehow, from somewhere deep inside, he’d given it something that he didn’t even know was there. A more drained and empty feeling he’d never had in his life, until, that is, the moment he reached the bus stop and saw Will standing nonchalantly by the fountains, chatting with a frat brother.
“There he is!” said Will.
The other guy was just as neatly dressed as Will, down to the blue jeans with a sharp crease in the leg. Their polo shirts were dry and looked as crisp as their neatly combed hair. Both had the look of the happy, relaxed college man who was on the cusp of success and in control of a wonderful life.
Turner pulled his feet out of the pedals, his bedraggled hair flat against the sides of his head, and sweat pouring off his face, arms and legs. “How long you been waiting?” he asked.
Will grinned. “Oh, I’d say we’ve been waiting about five dollars.” His frat brother laughed. “But don’t worry, man. You don’t owe me. You almost beat me here, anyway. We hit all the stoplights on green once we got off 1-35. I couldn’t believe it. That never happens.”
Turner had already fished out his five-dollar bill. “Bet’s a bet.” His face flushed from the humiliation.
Will shrugged and took it. “Okay.”
The friend started laughing. “You gotta take a look at yourself in the mirror. If that won’t convince you to ride the bus, nothing will.” They walked off.
Turner got back on his bike and rode over to Waggoner Hall, where he locked his bike. He still had a few minutes before class, so he went to the men’s room. Staring back at him in the mirror was a mess. His shirt was sopped with sweat. His hair looked like it had been washed with vegetable oil. His shorts had a big smear from the chain oil, and his sock was stained with a large, ragged blot of blood. Now that he’d stopped moving, his legs ached and he was light-headed.
Turner got his face up to the mirror so closely that his nose was almost touching it. He could see the pores in his skin and the rivulets of sweat that were already starting to dry up in the air conditioned men’s room. He looked at his eyes, and blinked from the sting of the salt. He wasn’t burning from embarrassment any more, and he wasn’t even concerned about the dinner he wouldn’t be getting to eat.
Instead, a heavy satisfaction started in his gut and radiated outward until it filled him, reaching the tips of his fingers, the ends of each strand of hair. “So that’s it,” he mused, surprised and pleased at what he’d found.
Then he lifted up the backpack and went off to class.