There wasn’t any time for a second bite. A plume of black clouds grew restless in the western sky. Max threw took one final chunk out of his apple and tossed the remnants into some shrubs lining the highway. It was the last bit of food we had between us. Through the film of perspiration covering my face I sensed the damning sensation of a raindrop obliterating itself atop my nose. The sun receded further behind the darkness.
“C’mon, only thirteen miles left,” I said.
I let Max take the lead since I had ridden in front the previous twenty miles. He’s smaller than me, and hasn’t been riding as long, but his endurance is that of a pro.
It wasn’t long after taking off that we switched from the shoulder lane to the main highway. We weren’t about to set any world records, but we’d been riding at a respectable rate for over ten minutes without seeing a single car drive past us. And besides, the road between the white lines didn’t have any potholes.
About a half hour after our stopping for food, I noticed that our cadence had slowed noticeably. The tendons in my knee were popping and cracking with every passing rotation, and my wrists and fingers were all but numb. Even Max, the self-proclaimed “greatest athlete on Regal Street”, was starting to show signs of fatigue. Lifting my head up slightly, I could see the ripples of muscle in Max’s calf quivering under the strain of yet another “hill”, which were really dwarf-size mountains.
About two more miles into the ride I heard what I thought was the crackling sound of falling timber. Only, to my chagrin, it was instead a spate of lightening stalking us, making sure we wouldn’t miss our deadline.
“Philadelphia 70 miles”, the sign said.
Sure enough, Central Pennsylvania’s lowly mountains gradually gave way to checkered farmlands dotted by dilapidated barns. By and by we started seeing construction sites where future overpriced private housing development were to be erected. It would be great, I thought, to grow up in a neighborhood where you could tip cows one second and then retreat back to your room to post your accomplishments online through the latest Apple rip-off.
Be that as it may, as the distance between residences dwindled, Max and I grew further and further apart. The sun had traversed more than half the sky since our last break, and my lower back was beginning to numb, too.
I mean, though, I understood why he was in such a hurry. It was our last delivery. Ever. And what’s more, the recipient promised us a considerable bonus if we could get his package to him before midnight, today.
“Max, slow down!” I yelled.
But, of course, that only slowed my momentum even more. I was trying my best to keep up, but these legs can only spin so fast.
Max rarely looked back while he was in the lead. Whether it was checking to see if I was drafting right or checking for traffic, nothing was more important to him than the world in front of him, a world that always seemed to have eluded him.
But, of course, as soon as I start thinking that Max looked back and he yelled, “Hey, do you want to stop soon?”
“Sure! I think there’s a rest stop in about three miles.”
And off he went. Whatever strain or fatigue his body had endured for the previous ten miles had evaporated into the dank, thick air around us. My acceleration, on the other hand, was hampered by my now throbbing back. Each revolution sent a thrash of pain from my hamstring up through my lumbar. I thought, where the hell does this guy keep all of that extra energy? He couldn’t even eat a fucking apple last time.
45 miles to Philadelphia.
On balance, Max and I were a good five seconds apart. Within that time, I heard two lightening strikes. The second one shook the ground, and I nearly fell off my bike.
By the time we reached the Bowmansville service plaza, a furious torrent had already begun its assault on the sleepy suburbs just outside of Reading. Our jerseys drenched and practically glued to our skin, Max and I locked our bikes in the rack next to the gas station air pump and made our way inside.
“Feeling like I could do a couple cheeseburgers, how ‘bout you?” Max asked as we stood, shivering, just inside the front automatic doors, looking for just the right place to spend our last few dollars.
“Maybe. The calories are good but I need some protein. Gotta finish out this last leg on a strong note. Didn’t come all this way just to not the money.”
“Yea, that makes sense, I guess. Tell you what, take this ten and go get us both something to eat. I’ll go get us some seats.”