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Fairy Tale Ride

Part 1:

Bug glanced over at Grimm resting his head on the car window.  He knew he shouldn’t be upset.  Not now.  Not with such little time left.

“You still pissed?” Grimm asked peeking through the little slits in his tired eyes.

“No, not really.” Bug responded half-heartily.  He was angry with his friend but would never admit it.  Bug was fully aware it was the Firm, not Grimm, dictating this last minute change.  Yet, it didn’t seem to matter.  The two had painstakingly been planning every detail of an eight-night bike tour for the past six months.  And now, because of Grimm’s new departure date the trip had to be

cut in half.  Rather than travel the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from the trailhead in Washington the full length up to Cumberland, Maryland and then return back along the 184-mile path they would instead be taking a one-way rental car to Cumberland and then bike back to DC.

Grimm broke the silence with a reference to their time together in the Air Force.  “Hey, you know what they say?  Flexibility is the key to airpower.  Plans go to hell and we just need to deal with it.  Bug, they’ll be other times, other trips.”

Bug nodded.  He wasn’t sure if it was true.  The Firm was relocating Grimm cross country to start a new project – just as they did with the others.  The others, who now only spoke through the occasional email, were once part of the Weekend Velo’ers.  Bug loved those Sunday morning ritual rides ending at a local donut and coffee shop.  Grimm and Bug were all that remained.  Even though they had been the closet of the Weekend Velo’ers, Bug realized long ago that between Grimm’s family obligations and Bug’s soon-t0-be family, the distance between them would be too much to keep the friendship together.  He knew this trip would be the last.

They pulled the rental car into the Cumberland Hertz lot shortly after noon.  Already behind schedule.  After unloading the bikes and configuring their gear they began the short 1-mile ride to the Cumberland trailhead.  Grimm rode a Surly LHT with 700c tires.  The bike was configured for long distance touring on hard surfaces but the two appreciated the extra storage accommodated by the front fork panniers.  Bug, on the other hand, was riding his Trek 4300 hard-tail mountain bike he used for work commuting.  Bug was aware that the large knobby tires might have been slightly overkill for the loose gravel they would be encountering.  If it gets me where I’m going then it’s the right tool for the job, he always rationalized to himself.

They followed signs directing them to the C&O Canal and entered a dirt parking lot.  On the left there was a small bike shop

offering day rentals.

“Hold up,” Grimm said.  “I want to reposition some gear before we get started.”

Great, more delays, Bug thought.  “You know at this rate you might as well postpone your trip for another week.”  Grimm pretended not to hear as he shuffled through his panniers.

Over by the bike shop, a little girl was being fitted for a bicycle.  “No, mommy, this bike is too small!  I want the pink one!” She whined.

“But Goldie, that bike was much too big for you,” her mother pleaded.

“No! No! No! I want the PINK ONE!”

“Well, I’m sorry, sweetie.”

“I want to go home.  I hate bicycles!  I hate…” Her gaze caught something coming out of the shop.

A gangly teenager exited the store pushing a pink bicycle.  “Ma’am, I think I found one that may be just right.”

“Yah!” shouted the little girl with golden locks.

“Ready?  Ready?  Bug, you there?” Bug shook his head and looked over at Grimm already mounted on his bike.

“Yeh. Lets get out of here quick so we don’t have to deal with that little brat.”

Their tires crunched over the loose gravel as they entered the old tow trail.  Their journey was finally beginning.

As the miles passed and the high summer sun promising long days for riding, the irritation and angst consuming Bug began to fade.  Each bump, ever push up hill, and coast down a slope dislodged all that was bothering him.  They were hoping to reach the Sorrel Ridge Campsite at mile marker 154.  A relatively short day, they knew, but with the late start they had no choice but to make it up later in the trip.

“About ten more miles.  We’ll hit Paw-Paw tunnel and then only another mile or two.”  Bug said has he tried to slide his Moleskine notebook back into his handlebar bag.  His upper jaw ached and he realized for the first time in a while he was smiling.  And why shouldn’t he be happy.  Things were good.  No, things were great.  No, things were…

PING!!!

Grimm’s tires skidded to an abrupt stop.  Without having to turn around, Bug knew exactly what that sound meant.  A broken tire spoke.  His heart sank.  Despite all they managed to stuff in their bags, spare spokes were not included.

“Guess you’re going back to that bike shop,” Grimm said matter-of-factly.

“Are you kidding me?  That’s like 20 miles!”  The sun made a hasty retreat.  Twilight came quickly cloaking the woods in an eerie red glow.  Bug composed himself, “Might as well walk the bikes to the next camp site and settle in for the night.  I’ll huff it to the shop at first light.  We’ll have a lot of distance to make-up though.”

“Let’s just hope the shop’s open tomorrow.”

Of course, they had no way of knowing this particular detail would be the least of their worries during the tour.

End of Part 1.

Part II: The Troll.

Bug grumbled to himself as he made his way back to camp. He was trying not to dwell on the fact that between his emergency trip back to the bike shop and the distance they would have to cover to make up for lost time, he would be pushing a century today. His legs could handle it. It was his ass that he was worried about. Why hadn’t he switched out the stock saddle? What an idiot. At least an unexpected storm last night softened the hard earth.

The sudden scent of coffee aroma signaled that camp was near. As Bug slowed, he heard Grimm and another voice.

“Hey! Good morning. ‘Bout time you got back,” Grimm shouted to Bug. He poured some instant coffee into a stainless steel cup and brought it over to Bug. Bug rested his Trek against a tree and took the coffee. His gaze stopped at the still standing tent. He pointed, looked over at Grimm, and raised his palms into the air. Useless!

Grimm didn’t take the bait. He undid the strap securing the repaired tire on Bug’s bike. Grimm continued, “Great, I’ll get this tire mounted and we’ll be on our way.”

“Need help with that?” the stranger inquired standing next to some custom bike set-up, the original paint and brand decals long since sandblasted away. The new powder-coat was shining silver.

“I can handle it. Bug, this is Gale Knight.”

Bug and Gale shook hands. His hands are callused with dirt lining his fingernails.

“Knight’s headed to DC too. Came down all the way from the Pittsburgh trailhead. Thought it would be cool to have him join us.”

“Sure. Whatever.” Bug shoved the tent poles into the bag. Seriously? This was supposed to be their trip. Not their and Gale’s trip. Knight would be the constant reminder for the next three days that each of them would easily be replaced. While Grimm realigned his wheel, Knight busied himself reconfiguring his own gear. At least he had sense enough to keep his distance, Bug thought.

“I’ll take the front, if you don’t mind gents?” Knight said as he swept his wavy blond hair underneath his helmet. If it weren’t for the week’s worth of dust coating Knight, he would probably be considered a handsome man. His jawline chiseled, his shoulder’s broad, and his eyes were a striking emerald green. Neither Bug nor Grimm objected and they soon fell in line behind Knight.

Despite Bug’s reservations, he was beginning to enjoy Knight’s company. Drifting off of Knight, slicing the headwind in half, allowed them to make great time. Plus, Knight was full of stories – some real, some fiction. They stopped trying to figure out which was which and just enjoyed the distraction. It wasn’t until dusk, when that same eerie red suddenly painted the forest that they came upon their first setback for the day.

“Must have been the rain last night. Guess it was worse here then up where we were,” Bug said looking out at a swamp where the trail should have been. “Now what?”

Knight seemed to be deep in thought. “Alright, gents. I got something. When I was touring this way a couple of summers ago, we got off course and ended up on some old railroad tracks. It parallels this towpath. If we continue on it for a while we should bypass this flooded-out portion.”

“Great!  See, I knew it was a good idea to bring you along,” Grimm smiled as he slapped Knight on the back.

“There’s just one thing I’m worried about. Right before the two trails meet back up we need to pass under a tunnel.”

“So what’s the big deal? We have headlamps.”

“Be wary of The Troll.”

Both Grimm and Bug laughed.  Knight remained deadpan and silent. There was something odd about it. Obviously just another one of Knight’s stories, Bug thought.  Plus, now’s not the time to imagine evil trolls living underneath bridges.

The old railroad bed wasn’t too far from the canal path and seemed to head in the same direction. By the time they reached the tunnel, darkness had settled over them. They came to a stop before entering the dark cavern that awaited them.

“We should probably go single file from here. I remember there was a ton of scattered debris and garbage inside.  Who’s going first?”

Silence.

Grimm laughed, “Alright boys, I’ll take the lead on this one. If we get split up I’ll just follow the sounds of your cries, babies.” He mounted back on his Surly and laughed again as he rode into the tunnel.  Bug switched on his headlamp and followed the direction of Grimm.

Knight was right; trash littered every inch of the path.  The light on Bug’s head was too dim to make out what everything was. Maybe it was better that way.  The temperature dropped dramatically.  Bug shivered.  And then somewhere in the darkness ahead, Bug heard the scream.  It echoed down the tunnel walls.  A thud.  And then silence.  Oh crap.

“Grimm? You OK, buddy?” Bug’s shaky voice shouted. He was trying to stay calm but the scenarios began playing out in his mind. He thought he heard a moan up ahead.  Probably just skidded out on some garbage.  It’ll be fine.  Grimm will shake it off and we’ll be back on our way.  Nothing to worry about…

“No!  No one passes!  You pay!  You pay!”  It was an unfamiliar voice, certainly not Grimm’s or Knights.  The voice was strained, raspy, and viscous.

Bug’s speed increased, plowing through the trash in his path, racing to save his friend’s life.

End of Part II.

Part III: Tunnel Rat

Pedaling and pedaling.  Faster and faster.  How could Grimm have gotten so far ahead of them, Bug thought.  His breath was quick and shallow as he approached the wreckage.  Grimm was sprawled out, his Surly bike pinning him awkwardly to the ground.  Grimm was motionless with his eyes fixed to his left.  Bug slowly turned his head in that direction allowing his headlamp to illuminate the filthy tunnel.  Nothing.  And then it stepped out from the shadows.  Covered in layers of mud soaked robs, its stench was repulsive.  There was no mistaking what this was.  This was the Troll!

Bug simultaneously felt lightheaded and nauseous.  The sweat running down his face stung his eyes as he tried to compose himself.  The troll lurched forward.  Bug, frozen in fear, did nothing.  The troll’s wart-covered hand swung firmly onto Bug’s headset.  No escape.  The tiny bit of light began to fade.

“Hold on, friend. This is the one you want.”  It was Knight.  His voice full of authority, steady, yet nonthreatening.  “Over here, friend.  Have a look for yourself.”

The troll reluctantly loosened his grip on Bug’s Trek and shuffled his way over.  Bug breathed through his mouth has the Troll’s stench passed – it was all he could do to prevent vomiting, although he wasn’t sure it would be totally successful either.  In the dual beam of both Bug and Knight’s headlamps, Bug was able to clearly distinguish the Trolls features.  The first thing he saw was that the Troll was only a man – the most disgusting, crusty, fowl man Bug had ever seen.  But still just a man.

“Yes sir, this bicycle is top-of-the-line.  You could sell it for a lot of money.  Sell it to whomever you wanted.  They would love to pay you if you would only sell it them it,” Knight continued as the Troll licked his slimy lips over this prospect.

“You’re gonna give me ‘em all,” the Troll snarled back to him.  He grabbed for the bicycle but Knight held steady.  The Troll grunted.

“Perhaps.  But lets talk about how you can sell this one.  You want to sell it, right?”

What the hell was Knight doing?  Bug knew they only had two options.  They could force their way through the Troll.  However, Grimm still laid buried beneath his bike and the extent of his injuries were still unknown.  They could give the Troll what he wanted.  But that wasn’t an option Bug was willing to entertain.  Wait!  Knight wasn’t entertaining this either.  He wasn’t saying, “sell.”  He was saying, “cell.”  As in cellphone!

Bug silently reached into his handlebar bag for his cellphone.  Nine. One. One.  No signal!  He gave Knight, still haggling with the Troll, a half shake of his head.

Knight understood.  “Lets go outside into the light.  Allow you to see these bikes better.  We can go right…”

The Troll forcefully interrupted Knight, “No boy! No tricks. Bicycles NOW!”  The Troll again tried prying the bike free, but Knight was resolute.

Time was running out, Bug knew.  He gave his head a quick turn.  Behind him stood an old shopping cart loaded with trash.  The height was nearly as tall as Bug.  He had an idea.  The success would depend on how well the Troll eyes were adjusted to the darkness.  Slowly and methodically, Bug removed the headlamp from his head and placed it in the pile of garbage.  The beam of light still directed towards Grimm and the Troll.  If the Troll looked in this direction, the blinding light would not allow him to see that the third cyclist had slipped away.  He then inched his way toward the tunnel exit.  Carefully.  Quietly.  Breathlessly.

The tunnel seemed to stretch forever.  After what seemed like an eternity, although it may have been only a few agonizing minutes, he was back under the starry sky.  The adrenaline coursing through his body, he fumbled as he punched the numbers into his phone.  He barely conveyed their position, not quite sure where he was himself, when the phone went dead.  Their location was still remote enough to pick up only a weak cell signal.  How long before the police would reach them?

Before having another chance to dial, he heard shouting.  The tunnel’s echoing caused the voices to blend together.  He dropped the phone, sprinting back into the tunnel, the shouts surrounding him.  He had never considered killing a man before but as he raced closer to the voices he scanned for objects that would inflict serious damage.  Up ahead there was a flash of colored light.

Red.  A fire?

Blue.  An electrical charge?

Red, Blue, Red, Blue, Red, Blue…

The alternating lights were now unmistakable.  The police!  But how did they get there so quickly?  It didn’t matter.  They were safe.

*                *                *

Outside the tunnel, the three cyclists, draped in blankets, described their story to the sheriff.  The Troll, they found out, was a local drifter who was occasional seen in the small nearby town panhandling for supplies.  Since he would retreat to the old abandoned trail and leave the travelers on the C&O Canal alone, he was left to be.  Bug couldn’t help to think how long it would be before this maniac was let free.  Probably as soon as they turned the corner.

The EMT was examining Knight’s arm.  In the commotion that followed the first light of the police car, the Troll had managed to swipe his arm with a hidden blade.  He would not be continuing his journey into DC with the other them.

Bug spoke, “How’d you guys get here so quickly?  I barely finished my call.”

The Sherriff said, “Well son, we pride ourselves on our response time. But, it took us a good 10 minutes to enter that tunnel after being notified by dispatch.”

Something didn’t quite add up.  Bug looked over at Grimm.  Grimm reached into his pocket and tossed him his phone.  Grinning he said, “next time, try Verizon.”

The light moment did not foretell what lay ahead during their final night on the C&O Canal. 

End of Part III.

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