“Switchback” by Roger Real Drouin

Rear brake snapped tight, he leaned through the turn, almost making it.

The bike strayed off the narrow trail that slalomed down into the pine valley.

He didn’t bail, and went with the bike, crashing down, and falling hard on his right side, slamming his knee and shoulder, falling before the wrinkled trunk of that big White Pine. When Ryan ran up to Davies, he was attached still as if his tall frame and the bike were one unmoving, welded shadow cast in the rocks and roots.

“You OK, man? No, wait, don’t move—slow—

The cut was below the knee joint, a piece of skin hanging down and blood seeping down to his socks, but Ryan initially thought he might have hurt his neck or shoulder and it looked like he moved alright when he got up.

“Your shoulder alright?”

“I think— I couldn’t get out.”

“Sit down. That’s a deep cut.”

The White Pine stood taller than any other pine, like a guard on the edge of the pine forest that stretched as far as they could see—as far as the puffs of clouds drifted down and nearly touched the twin mountains that folded up over the valley.

“I tried. I couldn’t get out of the handlebar. It was stuck.”

His left hand was on his other shoulder where the black harness strapped to the specially-designed, plastic prosthetic arm that connects to a metal sleeve attached to the handlebar. The prosthetic arm, as well as the rest of his shirt, was caked in dry soil.

“I’ve got a first aid kit in my pack.”

The sun sinking in the west and the full white-gray moon floating in the east, Davies went down to the creek below their camp. He used the bar soap and water and then iodine from Ryan’s first-aid kit to clean the cut and bandaged it.

Sitting on the broken shale, bandaged knee stretched straight, foot in the cool water, he heard a high-pitched whistle, klee klee klee kleeee, and looked up. The Kestrel stared down at the man. The falcon called a series of higher-pitched sounds, before she flew off the branch, her underwing golden brown and cream, black bands on her tail, wings beating and then wings open, tail feathers fanned.

The falcon soared away.

Davies hiked back up the trail to their camp. He could hear wood dragging against the ground, and a branch snapping.  Ryan had gathered a small stockpile of downed branches, and he was tucking pine needles and dry grass under the triangle of the driest branches. Shielding the small flame from the wind, he put the match to the dry pines, which began to crack with fire before the match burned down to his fingers. He shifted one of the branches so more air got inside the triangle of branches. As the flames kicked up, he lowered a few more of the dry branches onto the triangle.

He could have a fire going in less than a minute anywhere, Davies thought, getting out the small pint of whiskey from one of the compartments in his big rucksack. He put the bottle between his legs, and twisted off the cap with his right hand. His right arm was in the sling that held it close by his side. He took that first sip from the bottle and handed it to Ryan.

“Remember when you started that blaze behind our fort,” Davies said.

“You said I couldn’t start one with the Swiss Army—

“That’s right. I didn’t think you could,” Davies said, grinning. “I sure didn’t think anyone could get that blaze going that fast with a magnifying glass.”

“My sister and her friend came running up screaming, and ran inside to tell my mom.”

“The sky looked like it was on fire. They had no idea what was happening.”

Ryan took a drink from the bottle, passed it back across the fire, the orange and blues flames burning hot. Davies took a good drink. The almost-full moon drifted in the center of the sky. He took another drink and felt the wind. There were no thoughts of the cold, dark desert night patrols no one could train them for. And that was something, Davies thought, though he didn’t want to jinx it.

Davies got his Dear John in an e-mail, one week after he was back at Fort Polk and three months before he got his de-enlistment packet. She didn’t know how they made it work for so long. He changed. Became more negative, impatient.  She wrote it all in the e-mail. She wasn’t the angel he thought she was.

“Shit man I took it hard, ya know. But there is no way it would’ve worked out.” With another pine branch down, the fire snapped and burned bright blue. “You can’t force a relationship once it gets past a certain boiling point,” Davies said.

“I learned that the hard way. You have to think it could have been worse. You guys could have had kids together.”

“Maybe she would have tried more if we did.”

Davies took another drink. Passed the nearly empty pint, and Ryan took a drink.

“How’s your knee man?”


“Good, because we’ve got some trails to ride in the morning.”

“Hell yeah.”

Davies had stayed in Louisiana when his time was up, and he took a civilian job on base. He didn’t talk to anyone from home, except for his mom, who came to visit him for three weeks that Christmas. He grew apart from Watertown and those he had known there, and it wasn’t until a month earlier that Ryan got his phone number from his mom and called his old friend up. Ryan told his friend how he moved down to North Carolina and was going to graduate school and just wanted to see how Davies was doing.

They talked for a half-hour and promised to keep in touch. Davies remembered how they’d go biking up White Rock. Two boys, barely seventeen, heading up to the Connecticut-Massachusetts line early on a Saturday, in an old Dodge pickup. That was a long time ago.

It was an early spring back in Watertown, twelve years ago, when the dirty left-over snow was finally gone, and he was waiting for the first Saturday he would have off from his uncle’s garage. He had to work the last few weekends, but his uncle told him to take that Saturday off. His uncle knew how badly he wanted to get on the bike once that the cool spring air had replaced the sting of the winter wind. That Saturday Ryan came by in his old truck. There would be the two mugs of coffee waiting in the truck. Steve Miller coming from the dented and paint-caked boombox wedged between them on the vinyl bench seat. Five thirty in the morning. No headlights on the road yet, just them, balancing big mugs of coffee as they drove down State Route 109. Two mountain bikes in the bed of the truck.

That was a long time ago, before so much changed.

The singletrack at White Rock went fast in tight twists until they got up towards the top when they had to shoulder their bikes straight up the trail, under prickly bushes of thorns that had grown into the narrow trail and through the cold shade of the trees growing slanted up through the soil. From the lookout up there, two deer skipped along, white-tailed, bounding across a green field below. There were no houses, nor buildings, in sight, only the half-bend of the ribbon of two-lane rural asphalt where it turned through the forest, and the line of the packed-dirt Jeep trail below that lead to the truck, so tiny it was just a blue speck catching the sun.

The wind came straight at them, and Davies remembered how he had the jitters—taking in the trail that dropped before him and taunted and welcome him at the same time— griping the handlebars before he let go of the brakes, beginning his descent down.

In the morning, Davies slid on the snug-fitting biking shoes that clipped into the pedals and stood into the pale blueness, and he looked out over the mountains. Hiking down to the creek, he carried the big thermos that he would fill with water and boil to kill any bacteria or viruses and then pour into water bottles after it cooled. He looked up to where he had heard the whistling call the day before, but there were only empty branches.

He wondered if maybe he could use the deployment money left to buy a place out here, maybe a little closer to town, find a job. If he could look out this high over the mountains every morning, things would be different. Maybe he should get a place out here before he had reasons not to. Just a modest place with a few acres and he would get a dog, a good mutt from the shelter.

The paler blue was fading to white, and the air smelled like clean clothes drying in the sun. As he grabbed the thermos he saw the Kestrel flying high overhead up in the thermals.

When he got up to camp, Ryan had the half-burnt branches on the rejuvenated fire. They had their coffee by the small fire.

Just before the narrow wooden sign notched Highline Trail, Elevation 3,605 feet, Ryan locked his brakes and kicked out his left foot from the pedal clip. He heard Davies come up behind him. Two black diamonds were cut in the sign. Bikes side by side, they didn’t say anything.

They just looked down.

To the east, everything sloped down, lined with tall grass growing around the big gray remnants of glacial boulders. Tall pines covered the hill further down, and to the north-northeast, the edge of the hill dropped down to one of the valley creeks that twisted through the land. Davies eyed the creek to where it reached the twin peaks of the mountains to the far north.

To the west, directly below where they stood, a trail ran down the mountain’s slanted face, making a sharp turn a quarter-mile down before heading straight into an eighty-degree decline, and finally twisting down into the canyon. Along stretches, the trail was no wider than two bikes treads side-by-side, with big rocks to either side.

“Guess it’s my turn to lead,” Davies said. He felt the old feeling of awe and nervousness, and he grinned at the trail that once again taunted and welcomed him.

“You sure you want to take this one?” Ryan said.

Davies clipped the metal sleeve to the handlebar where you’d wrap your fingers. He pulled on the arm with his right hand to make sure it was connected.

“Piece of cake,” he said, and he unlocked the brake and rocked forward down the trail. He leaned back off the seat, hovering over the back tire, leaning against gravity that wanted to drag him crashing down into the rocks, using inertia’s pull to keep his balance.

In less than a minute, Davies was a quarter-mile down the trail, locking and releasing his brakes, and disappearing into the sharp turn, and Ryan watched him descend down the big drop, trailing a tail of dry dirt, the brakes gripping tight every two seconds. Then he let the brakes go.

A loud high-pitched call came down from the Kestrel flying over where Ryan stood.

The falcon dived low, catching up to Davies where the trail switched in another sharp S down through the pines.

Wings spread, the falcon glided.

Tires treading dirt and rocks, the man looked up. He leaned into another switchback. Wheels spinning freely. There is no knowledge or fear—only instinct.

The falcon steady, her shadow racing the man on the bike.

Roger Real Drouin is an MFA student in creative writing/fiction at Florida Atlantic University. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in The Litchfield Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Northville Review, Pindeldyboz, Canary, and other journals. His essay on the rare Eskimo Curlew was published in EarthSpeak Magazine (Issue 3). Roger’s Web site is www.rogerdrouin.com. He also writes an outdoor blog at www.rogersoutdoorblog.com.