June 19th, 2010
Laska dove hard and early into the final corner to try and guard her from being overtaken. Behind her, so close she could probably smell his breath, was a bright green bike that’d been hot on her heels the entire lap. Unlike the wild, aggressive entry Laska made, he’d chosen a more typical line around the corner.
Damn – she’d gotten impatient and tried to protect herself from being passed. She’d entered hot and fast, but her exit was so slow it was like she’d come to a standstill. She did her best to get back on the throttle and tuck in for the final straight. Beneath her black leather and helmet I knew she howling and yelling for something – anything – to let her stay ahead.
But the green bike had taken the fast line; probably never intended to pass her up the inside of the corner to begin with. He blew past her down the straight like he’d been catapulted. There was no chance of Laska catching up, even if she was one of the smallest and lightest riders out there.
As she crossed the line, I figured she’d placed seventh, assuming I had everything straight in my head. Out of a field of 23, I thought it was an impressive enough feat, but I knew she wouldn’t see things that way.
Well, with the race over, it was time to head back down to our paddock to receive my little racer.
Bike up on its stands, Laska tugged and ripped at the straps holding her gloves on and then tossed them onto an empty chair. Next came her helmet, set in place with her gloves in the sort of way hinting their owner would have rather thrown them and screamed, but was mindful of small details like cost.
“I can’t believe I screwed up like that! I should’ve known better!” Laska fumed, running a paw through her sweat-slicked hair.
“Getting angry isn’t going to fix anything,” I said, waiting for her to unzip her leathers so I could help her out of them. The sleeves were particularly difficult, since they had to be tight on her arms yet loose enough to fit her paws.
“Yeah, but that was dumb. I knew he couldn’t beat me to the turn, but I did it anyways!” Laska dropped the shoulders on her suit and held an arm to me. With me holding the leather, she was able to pull her arm free after a bit of a struggle. “Just like the last dozen times…”
“Still, if I’m right you got seventh. That’s better than last year – not bad for your first race of the year, don’t you think?”
“Could’ve been sixth,” she grumbled, dropping heavily into a chair to undo her boots after her other arm was freed.
“Well, you have another round later this afternoon. Relax, clear your head, and I’m sure you’ll do better.”
Boots off, Laska could finally wriggle free of her suit – practically dripping with sweat as it was – and hung it up to dry. “I don’t think I’ll ever quit messing up,” she said, her voice equal parts bitterness and anger.
Considering her error was something she’d been having difficulty with all last season up until the end, she had to have been dwelling on it all through the winter and spring. Easy to understand why she was beating herself up so much, even if she was acting oblivious to areas where she’d made improvement.
“Didn’t Eralia say you need to quit focusing so much on it? Something like if you’re too preoccupied with your mistakes, you’ll wind up making them again since it’s all you’re thinking about,” I said as I fished around our cooler for a bottle of water and wet cloth and tossed them to Laska.
Draping the cold cloth across her burning forehead, Laska took a long gulp of water. “Easy for her to say…”
As if reminding us of her existence, a howling cacophony approached the corner near our paddock. The pack of bikes screamed on by, 20-some machines passing through in a matter of seconds – and it was just the warm-up lap. “Speaking of, want to watch Eralia race with me? I’m going to head back to the tower.”
Laska’s tail twitched and she gave me a long, hard look from beneath the white rag. Expecting her to say no, I pre-emptively started to walk away.
“…Fine, I guess.”
She hopped up, took one final wipe of her face with the rag before tossing it aside, and scampered to my side.
16 laps in, only a handful to go – Eralia’s race was an endurance round lasting about 45 minutes. From our vantage we got a nice overview of one particularly tricky part of the track, a section where one would expect the same order of bikes coming out as went in.
Two machines dove in, a duo well ahead of the pack. A black and grey machine with white paw print decals dogged the red leader, never giving him a moment’s breath. Blasting through to the chicane that lead to a sharp hairpin, all the riders had to slow significantly.
The black bike whistled into first, so late and so hard on the brakes I thought it was all over. I clenched tight all around, holding a breath as I waited for the inevitable. The front tire was straddling the line between the pavement and checked curb so close I had no idea if she it was on or off. The paint-slicked surface on the curb could easily spell doom for anyone that thought it safe.
Hugging close all the way around, the bike stayed upright by some miracle, even when the rear-end slid out and just about kissed green as she drove hard out of the corner. A few moments later rider and machine composed themselves and sailed gracefully into the open road ahead, leaving the now-second-place rider long behind.
“How the hell did she do that?!” Laska’s paws were balled tight on the railing.
How indeed… once my heart had restarted itself and I remembered I had to breath and the images of Eralia tumbling across the ground passed, I was able to think again.
“Don’t you get any ideas,” I said, throwing a stern glance at my daughter. Why I said that, I don’t even know. She was getting all kinds of ideas. I could see it on her face. “You know as well as I, if you tried that you’d be out in the weeds.”
“Yeah, but she had to learn how to do that somehow, right? It ain’t racing unless you’ve got the scars to prove it.”
Now that was both ironic and worrying. “What, exactly, has she been saying to you?”
Laska winced in the way people did when they’ve said something they shouldn’t have. “Uh, nothing. I mean, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”
I hoped she’d never realize her “You can trust me” smile was the biggest giveaway whenever she was trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Had to admit, discovering they had their own talks and secrets was nice to hear. I could just imagine Eralia glancing side to side before starting something with “Now don’t tell your father, but…”
Scanning the same turn I’d watched Laska blow her lead, I saw Eralia haul through all by her lonesome. Barring anything catastrophic, she had this one in the bag. “You two are trying to kill me, aren’t you?”
Laska quirked her head to a side.
“Don’t give me that look, you know exactly what I’m getting at. It’s already hard enough having you two race around. No pushing your limits. Keep things inside your limits. Well inside.”
“But how will I ever get better?” Laska said, presenting a sound and logical argument.
“Magic, I guess,” I responded, not particularly caring for being reasonable.
She rolled her eyes at me and padded towards the stairs. “Anyways, how about lunch? I’m hungry and it’s obvious she’s gonna win.”
When she said it like that, it kind of sucked some of the excitement out of Eralia’s race, but she did have a point. Besides, after her endurance race she was probably going to need a hand even getting off her bike. “Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”
As we approached our little slice of the pits, we noticed a guy in his race undersuit and shorts loitering around, looking over Laska’s bike while being mindful of certain boundaries.
“Someone you know?”
Laska shook her head. “No, maybe he’s here to talk to Eralia?”
Considering Eralia had been pro at one point, there were a few people around who remembered her name and would say hello or ask for advice. It was flattering at first, but after enough time it became rather tiresome.
But the closer I got, the more I noticed he was young; couldn’t have been older than 17 or 18.
“Hey there, something I can help you with?” I said once we got to our canopy.
The youth’s head snapped up from the bike to us. He froze on the spot with his mouth slightly open, eyes shifting from me to Laska.
“This is yours, right?” He said once he got a handle on himself, though he sounded unsure of his own question.
“Yeah?” Laska answered like she wasn’t entirely sure of it herself.
First time someone had come calling for my daughter by themselves like that. She sounded just like he did, much to my amusement.
“…Why, what’s up?”
“I was the one who passed you at the end,” he said, a little like he was embarrassed of himself. I quickly got the impression he wasn’t trying to brag, which made me wonder why he’d come over.
Laska, however, didn’t see things quite as I did. “What, came here to rub it in my face?” She stomped forward in a huff, acting like she was getting ready to tell him off.
“No, no not at all!” He held up his hands to ward off her ire. “I just walked to maybe talk with whoever was the rider. I thought you were really good!”
“If I was good, you wouldn’t have passed me.”
“But you passed me first, on the second lap.”
All the annoyance in Laska boiled off, leaving cautious curiosity. She paused to think, her tail doing its usual dance whenever she had to really try to remember something. “Oh yeah… but I leapfrogged a couple people.”
“I know! I copied what you did on the next lap in that spot and got ahead of a bunch of people too, and managed to get behind you. It was really cool! Never knew you could do that.” All his nervousness flaked away, leaving his excitement to shine in all its luster.
“I kind of learned it from someone else. I guess a lot of people go really slow through there ‘cause the normal line makes it slow,” Laska said, tapping the ends of her paws together.
I’d made my way over to the cooler and extracted our sandwich supplies without a word. A single keening wail rounded the corner, followed shortly after by a whole pack. If I kept track right, this would be the last lap, followed by the cooldown lap and then pit-in.
“Right? I never would have believed it if I didn’t see it happen in front of me. And you made a lot of awesome passes! I felt like I was behind a pro trainer or something showing me all the fast ways around the track.”
“If that was the case,” Laska grumbled, half puffed with pride and half deflated in self-deprecation, “you wouldn’t have passed me, and I would’ve got at least third or something.”
“Yeah, but you started in the back of the group… and yeah, you kind of blew that last corner,” the young man said, wearing a quirky smile.
“I wouldn’t have been in the back if my dad,” Laska said, tossing me a sidelong glance, “would remember to register us early.”
Like I was going to take that.
“The elderly tend to be forgetful,” I said as I slathered a slice of bread with mustard, “Why, in my advanced age I might forget altogether. That’d be a shame, wouldn’t it?”
After giving me an extra helping of scowl, Laska turned her attention back towards those lavishing praise. “But yeah, that’s my dad.”
I gathered he’d already puzzled that detail out upon seeing me. But he still gave me a nod. “Nice to meet you – do you race too?”
“Race, nah, but I ride on open track days every now and then. Someone’s gotta clean up and pack everything after a long day,” I said, directing my comment towards my daughter.
He gave me a sympathetic grin. “Yeah, it can be rough. At least you only have one bike to stash away, though.”
I looked up and shook my head. “If only, but no, I have double the work.”
As if answering his unspoken question, one machine from the parade of bikes rolling through the pits came to a rest in front of us. I grabbed one of the bike stands and set it in place, thus allowing Eralia to hop off without fear of anything tipping over.
Rather, she tried to hop off, but instead managed a sluggish, stiff crawl. Laska had nothing but annoyance for the winner, but the curious lad was quite interested to know who the person behind the mirrored visor was.
Taking a few steps, undoing the strap as she went, Eralia tugged her helmet off and shook out her hair like a fashion model. If fashion models were sweaty and gross and had hair that looked like a ball of tangles and knots. And staggered as they went.
“You seem a little tired,” I said, handing Eralia a bottle of water.
She tossed her gloves near the table and downed half the bottle in an instant – drank half and poured the rest on her face. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” she said with overwhelming feminine grace, presenting her leather sleeve to me. Just like Laska I helped her out of the suit, and then she collapsed into a chair. Legs spread wide with a fan pointing at her, uncaring of who saw. “Everything hurts, make it stop,” she whined to no one in particular, hanging her head off the back of the chair.
I thrust a sandwich under her nose, along with another bottle of water. “Here, eat.”
Her nose twitched and she snapped to attention. “You’re the best! Thish ish whuy ah wuv you!”
All the while, the kids just watched a grown woman throw away the last shred of her dignity.
“Where would you be without me?” I said, handing over lunch to Laska as well. “Oh, and this is… What was your name again?”
“Dave,” the young man said after a moment; he’d been gazing intently at the number plate parked before him.
Eralia waved and attempted to mumble something, but her cheeks were so packed the only thing that came out were bits of meat and cheese.
“I’m Laska. Don’t mind Eralia,” Laska said, rolling her eyes, “She’s got no class.”
Unwilling to let that comment slide, Eralia somehow swallowed the massive wad of food without so much as a cough or sputter. “If I’ve got no class, then why do I always school your ass?”
Such happy family fun-times. I wasn’t getting involved. Instead, I offered the third sandwich to our lingering visitor.
“No thanks,” he said, but his gaze gave him away.
“Go on, it’s lunch time anyways, right? We’ve got plenty.”
Dave hesitated for all of a second before agreeing.
“So how long have you been racing?” I said, preparing something for myself while he chomped away happily in the seat next to the cooler.
“This is my second season, but I’ve been riding dirt since I was little.”
“Oh yeah? Laska’s the same way. Got her on dirt bikes a couple years ago, then Eralia over there got her into road racing.” I indicated with my knife towards the bickering pair.
“That’s cool… I kind of want to say hi, but…”
Following Dave’s gaze, I could hardly blame his reluctance. With her arms crossed and that cocky face, she was about as approachable as a hungry wolf. “…Though I guess I’m still kind of jealous of Laska.”
Seeing as all the chairs were now occupied, I took a rest on the cooler with my meal in hand. “Don’t be. Anything she’s learned has come at a steep price.”
“I dunno, seems worth it to learn from a former pro,” Dave said as we both watched the spectacle.
For someone who appeared hardly any older then Laska, he certainly had a mature world-view. If only all teens could think that way. Then again, it could’ve just been him wanting to win at any cost.
“Oh, I forgot; name’s Curtis.”
Dave made to stand up with his arm coming out for an introductory handshake, only to come to a halt and sheepishly draw his hand back. “Ah, you already know who I am.”
I smirked. We had a short discussion about some of the details of racing until finally Eralia and Laska had managed to tire themselves out completely. Interestingly, they never really yelled at each other. It was more like trading snarky remarks was the only way they knew how to have a conversation sometimes, which is why I let it go without saying anything.
But I still needed to reprimand Eralia a little.
She glanced over at me with a look that said “What-do-you-want-I’m-tired.”
“Dave’s got something he wants to ask you.”
“Oh no, if she’s tired I can just ask another day,” he said, standing up, “besides, I should get back—“
“Don’t be silly, she loves talking shop, even if she does look grumpy.”
The grumpy one knew exactly what I was doing, but accepted her toll. Dave was a bit reluctant at first, but didn’t take long until he started grilling Eralia with every question he could think of. Nearly half an hour passed with those two talking, me milling about, and Laska adding her comments to their discussion.
“Uh-oh,” Dave said after checking his phone.
“Missed messages?” Eralia said, her eyes radiating hope.
“Just a few… I suppose I should get back.” He slid his phone back into his pocket and stretched out, leaving a very relieved Eralia in his wake. “But, uh, do you mind if I come back later?”
“Sure, doesn’t bother us,” I said, drawing a momentarily look of agony from Eralia.
“Cool, good luck on the next race, Laska! I hope you do well.”
Laska had turned her attention elsewhere, likely figuring her involvement was over. “Huh? Ah, sure, you too,” she said, adding a half-wave.
With that, Dave walked off. For some reason Eralia watched him for a bit, and when she looked over at me, she was wearing a sly smirk.
“You didn’t notice anything while he was here?”
He came, talked, and left. Maybe more polite than I’d been accustomed to teenagers being, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t what she was getting at. “No?”
Eralia rolled her eyes and sighed. “I guess that’s to be expected.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, nevermind,” she said, waving her paw lazily as if to shoo away my concerns.
I hated it when she pulled that. She knew it, of course. Well, whatever – there was no chance of her telling me, especially when I got upset with her.
The next and last race of the day for Laska saw her perform a little better, finishing a respectable sixth. Dave had a bit harder of a time, coming in 11th. Afterwards, true to his word, Dave paid us another visit. Rather than pick Eralia’s brain this time around, he spent most of the time chatting with Laska. Hearing them talk each lap, corner by corner, was fairly interesting. I always thought most people approached corners and such with the same mindset, more or less.
Apparently I was wrong.
After Eralia came in – having won again, of course – we began packing up. Or would have, but Eralia was keen to haul me away for a walk.
“Can’t it wait? I want to get started putting all this away…”
She stepped in close and took hold of my hand. “It’s really important. Trust me,” she said, staring at me intently.
Maybe it had something to do with what she was talking about earlier? Curiosity got the better of me and I relented. “Fine, let’s go. But you’ll have to actually help me this time around. We need to be out of here by six.”
Eralia clapped her paws together. “Good!”
Told Laska we’d be back in a few minutes and let Eralia drag me off. Once we were a decent enough distance away I asked what was so critical, but she just brushed me off. Instead, she started talking about how we met and other random bits from memory lane.
“Remember when Laska rode head-first into that wall?” She said, unable to keep herself from laughing.
As terrible as it made me feel, I laughed as well. Laska flew headfirst over the bars, like something straight out of a slapstick comedy – complete with her tail going all straight and poofing out on impact and then the slow slide to the ground…
“Hey! I’m supposed to be concerned about her getting hurt,” I said, giving Eralia a swat on the shoulder.
“She wasn’t, so it’s fine. Besides, young cats may as well be made of rubber.”
“You’re not getting me to admit to anything,” I said, mustering all the defiance I could manage; which wasn’t much considering I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face. “But to the point, I know this isn’t what you wanted to talk to me about. C’mon, quit stalling.”
“I wanted to give her some time,” Eralia said after a short delay.
“Time for what?”
“You’re impossible, you know that? And maybe it’d be better to say time for me,” she said, snatching up my arm to walk close at my side. Her bushy tail wagged side to side, brushing up against my back every other step.
Talk about a turn of events.
“Weren’t you just dying of exhaustion? Don’t tell me you’re in the mood now.”
“And what if I am? Or am I too sweaty and dirty for you?” There she went, feigning hurt feelings.
“Yes, and we’re in public, and we have to get back. By the way, your gross sweat is soaking into my shirt.”
“That’s what showers are for,” she said, giving me the eyes. When I didn’t play along with her silly advances and just kept walking with a straight face, she gave a pouty little ‘hmph.’ “Oh, and my sweat isn’t gross.”
Ah, such fun times with Eralia. Wish I could figure her out, though her current behavior was unusual even by her standards. We kept walking for a while longer, looping around in a big circle. When we got back, Dave was no where to be found.
“Where’d Dave go?” I asked, noting Laska had at least made a tiny effort at moving some of the things around.
“He had to go help pack,” Laska said, seemingly in a far better mood than when I’d left.
“Oh, I see. He seemed nice enough.”
“Yeah – he’s pretty passionate about racing, and other stuff. He actually doesn’t live too far away from us.”
From behind me, Eralia let out a girlish giggle. When I turned to see what she was laughing at, she just rose her eyebrows at me as if I was missing the joke. Though even Laska was confused, which made me feel a bit better about not getting whatever was going on.
“Nice, sounds like you’ve made a friend,” I said, walking up to the canopy and undoing the anchors.
It’d taken long enough, but there it was. Laska was finally starting to get to know people who weren’t Zoe. Made me happy to know she was growing.
“Anyways, we don’t have as much time, so you guys need to actually help,” I added, only to receive matched groans.