“Do you want to die?” Sundeep’s brother asks.
Devidas whirls the playground spinner before I have time to grip the metal bar and hold on for my life. He races around and attempts to knock us off with sheer velocity. While I rotate like a kaleidoscope, the ground sparkles with broken glass littered below. His brother, Sundeep, falls first. I’m almost thrown from the wheel, but as the only girl in the group, it’s imperative I hold on. At the last minute, I leverage my foot and grasp again onto the yellow bar. I bite my tongue and my mouth fills with blood, but as I travel at the speed of light my tears evaporate into thin air.
Devidas grows bored, shrugs off Sundeep’s plea for one more try, and splits. If Devidas were my brother, I’d leave with him but instead, Sundeep shows the twins and me his hand-me-down Huffy bike with thick all-terrain wheels and hand brakes. An “older brother” stench lingers on it, and Sundeep is wiser and stronger in proximity. He pops wheelies and we dare him to eat cat food, run into a stranger’s backyard, and pet the Doberman down the street.
When the dust settles on his tires, the sun has fallen low in the sky, which means it’s time to go. The twins, Sundeep and I straddle our bikes and face each other in a circle like cowboys on horses.
“I dare you to ride the ramp,” I say.
The sandpit ramp is a steep incline overlooking an abandoned ravine. It was built by teenagers years ago, but the first person to ride it died after he flew 100 feet in the air and broke every bone on impact. No one had attempted it since.
“Sure. I’ll do it,” Sundeep says. “On the last day of school.”
“It’s pretty dangerous,” one twin says.
“So?” Sundeep asks. His tight ponytail reveals dark challenging eyes under bushy brows that slash across his forehead.
“You’ll never make it,” I say.
The next day we examine the ramp and Sundeep finds it lacking. The wooden beams are wobbly and need to be fixed. It’s easy to find a toolbox, but much harder to find someone to help with repairs. We aren’t used to getting help from our families. For one thing, Sundeep’s mother is sick and sleeps most of the day in a room that smells like rubbing alcohol. His dad either perches bedside or works at his office. Devidas, the only person we knew who’d taken shop class, would never do us a favor.
Because of the afternoon rain, we hang out on Sundeep’s back porch, with YouTube on mute so as not to disturb his mother. We’re so quiet, we hear Devidas on the phone. Instead of the gruff, bored timbre we’re used to, we hear a cracking, self-conscious bleat. Where he’s usually annoyed, he’s now agreeable; where he’s usually apathetic, he’s now eager to please. It’s exactly the blackmail we need.
“If you want to keep your girlfriend a secret,” I say when Devidas hangs up, “then you’re going to help us.”
“You were listening?” Devidas has Sundeep in a headlock in a nanosecond, and the twins and I race home.
Three blocks away, my mom screams at my older brother like a wild turkey with her wings puffed out. If he was more like Devidas he could protect himself. I’m ashamed of how he cowers. When I’m closer, my mom turns on me. A girl should be pretty, with hair that’s combed, and who does what she is told. A girl doesn’t scream, give lip, run around with boys, or eat Pringles out of a can. Apparently, a girl doesn’t sleep either; at home, I’m alert for anyone entering my room to yell or yank at me. Sometimes the night-waker is my cat, Whiskers, who burrows under my bed and attacks my ankles when I uncover my foot in the night. Whiskers bites any dangling limbs with his needle teeth and grips even when I struggle to shake him loose or when I cry in surprise.
The next day at school, I’m groggy, but rush to the ramp at 3 p.m. to help Devidas carry the metal toolbox up the hill. He doesn’t ask any questions. He wants to make out with his girlfriend and is willing to pay for his brother’s silence. He shakes the wood and pokes at the frame. We gather dry sand from the lot and carry buckets up the hill to help with the erosion, while he tightens bolts and assembles sister beams so they’ll withstand the weight.
By supper time, the ramp is deemed ready. Devidas stands and brushes the dirt off his pants. “Well, that’s the best I can do.” When he lumbers off with the tool kit, we look at Sundeep, expectantly.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” Sundeep says. “At twilight.”
“I bet you’ll wuss out,” I say, not daring to have hope.
The last day of school is like any other, except by this time, word has spread far and wide, and as soon as the bell rings we’re running towards the ramp like a marathon. Before I have a chance to fall in line, I hear my name being called. The man hollering from the driver’s seat of the van, my stepfather, or “Chester” as my brother calls him behind his back, waves. My stomach clenches.
“Thought I’d give you a ride home. And I got you a burger.” The back door of the van slides open. “Get in.”
Everyone else scatters. Inside, garbage and painting supplies litter the back seat, smeared with white paint. It smells like smoke, turpentine and grease.
“I’m going to Sundeep’s,” I say, not getting in.
“Who, what, now?” my step-father asks. “I already got you a whopper, so you might as well eat it.” Mom hates when I eat fast food because, according to her, thin girls wouldn’t tuck into a hamburger and have grease run down their hands.
I flop onto the backseat but keep the door open. I shovel the burger, fries, and milkshake in as fast as it will go.
“Girl’s got an appetite,” my step-father says. He winks at me in the rearview mirror. Then he passes me napkins from the glove compartment, which I used to wipe my hands. When he asks if he can share the fries, I tell him he can have the rest.
“You need a ride where you’re going?” my step-father asks. “You can sit in the front seat.”
“It’s okay,” I say, balling up the wrappers and leaving them on the seat before sliding out. I sprint across the parking lot before I realize I’ll get in trouble if I don’t thank him. So I holler back and the van beeps in reply.
There’s still time to get there. A few shortcuts save valuable minutes but have other risks.
First I cut through a rarely used parking lot with empty space used for throwing balls, vaping, and breaking beer bottles. A group of five surly high-schoolers plays “Murder” against the alligator mural wall in the paved lot. The rules are loose: When one of the players doesn’t catch the ball, the loser stands against the bricks while the rest of the group whips tennis balls at him. Bruises in perfect circles decorate the players’ limbs like badges. Even if you aren’t playing, they make you sprint through the firing squad. Their screams follow me across the yard. The neon green bullets ricochet off my head, my back, and my thighs and I cover my face as I’m killed.
Limping out the other side, I text Sundeep to wait for me. I race past the Doberman, Jim’s Superette, and through the unofficial path that winds past the sides of two houses and slashes across the pervert’s backyard. I don’t want to do it, but otherwise, I’ll have to go the long way around. If the pervert finds me, he’ll flash me. I almost make it to the stone wall when the pervert opens the sliding glass door. He drops an empty beer bottle on the lawn and yells to make himself heard over the blaring TV.
“Where are you going? You’re just in time for the party.” The pervert’s voice is thick and raspy. “Do you want to see a birdie?”
I will myself not to look back and jump over the low stone wall, like a gymnast, and huff and puff my way up the final hill to the sandpits, where a crowd assembles around the ramp. Bikes lay scattered on their sides across the grass, and backpacks are precariously piled in small mountains.
I push my way into the huddle and find the twins.
“Where is he?” I ask.
“He’ll be here,” the first twin says.
“If he pulls back on the bars, he should land with the back wheel on the ground first,” the other twin says.
“Is Devidas coming?” I ask. As the older brother, Devidas would know what to do in case of an emergency.
The twins shake their heads.
There’s a hush, as Sundeep walks his Huffy up the hill. All eyes are on him. The sun glints off his bike. He doesn’t say anything, only approaches the ledge, peers over, and adjusts his short ponytail.
“Sun-deep, Sun-deep, Sun-deep!” we chant. He stands tall and doesn’t seem to have second thoughts. Beads of sweat rest on the fine hairs that grow above his lip, like dewdrops on summer grass. His lips are flaking and remind me of his mother’s, which are so dry you could peel them off like a sunburn.
Sundeep dons a white bike helmet, almost like a costume for the event, which gives him the anonymous look of a stuntman ready for a Hollywood movie.
“Good luck,” the first twin says, gripping Sundeep’s hand in a firm shake.
I play at pushing Sundeep off the ledge. “You chicken?” I flap my arms.
“He’s not chicken.” The other twin steps forward.
“Aw, hell,” I say. Part of me wants to tell Sundeep he should call it off. But we’re best friends because neither of us probes the other. I don’t talk to him about his stuff, and he doesn’t ask me about mine, so it’d be weird to start now. I’m not about to call his father or text Devidas, or worse, tell Sundeep’s mother on her sickbed. But I wish I could tell Sundeep there are other ways to make the pain he’s feeling go away besides reckless behavior.
Instead, I say, “Come on, you pussy. We don’t have all day.”
Sundeep tilts his chin at me and smiles. He rolls his bike back and climbs on. My skin prickles with the sense that something major is about to happen.
“10, 9, 8.” The kids shout a countdown. “7, 6, 5.” I join in, despite my reservations.
Sundeep revs his handlebars, and maybe he believes he’ll make it. We’d seen versions of this in the movies and knew he’d either succeed against all odds or a responsible adult would arrive in time. In our neighborhood, hope is a risky feeling.
“4, 3, 2”….
Sundeep pedals and builds up speed. He’s fast— really fast. I register his concentration, his strong legs pumping hard, and the unbroken chain of onlookers who are hooked onto his every move. The bike races up the ramp, and at the lip, Sundeep propels into space. It’s glorious. My fist shakes in victory as we run to the edge. The ramp holds, and Devidas’ handiwork is solid. In our minds, we’re lining up to take the next turn.
And then Sundeep goes down.
He doesn’t scream or cry but makes more of a whistle.
The back wheel lands in the crack of the ravine. His body jolts backward and then tumbles forward off the bike. The bike rolls sideways through the rocks and waste. There’s a heap of stillness, a junk pile made of metal and skin.
The twins start down the ravine before anyone has a minute to think.
“I’ll call an ambulance!” I yell. The others warn me not to because we’ll get in trouble, but I’ve already dialed 911. A voice is on the phone. Sirens. An ambulance with flashing lights. They pull Sundeep out of the gulch, unconscious. His teeth are spread around him like confetti.
“Thank god he was wearing a helmet,” the ambulance driver says. Two other EMTs hike Sundeep’s limp body onto a stretcher and up to the vehicle. As they pull him in, Sundeep comes to. His voice is garbled, and he can’t sit up. His mouth looks like a crushed tomato. But he’s alive.
The next time I see Sundeep and Devidas is at their mother’s funeral, after the city tears down the ramp and fills the ravine with sand. My mother pinches me to stop slouching, but then pats my hand when the service starts. Sundeep’s teeth flash with new braces, while Devidas, sitting in the pew, looks like sterling silver that’s tarnished. All the older-brother sparkle has disappeared, and his brown eyes are now too large for his hollow face. The grief makes his jaw tight and his shoulders slump in his borrowed suit. He looks like my brother, scared and small. Older brothers are nothing; they can’t protect you. They’re similar to adults who look away.
But Sundeep? A beatific smile never leaves his face, not when relatives give their condolences, not through the sermon, or when his father breaks down wailing on his shoulder. It’s as if I were the one on the bike, airborne; I feel the wind on my face, flying. I’ve already left my body, the funeral, the suffocating town, and my step-father’s large hairy hands that reach for me like a spider in the night. Like Sundeep, I’m not going to land on my feet, but I will escape. None of it matters anymore, we’ve broken free.
Meredith Craig (she/her), a Brooklyn-based writer, has work published in Fictive Dream, Variety Pack, Stanchion Journal, Scribble, Backchannels, Rock Salt Journal, and anthologized or forthcoming in Jacked: A Crime Anthology published by Run Amok Books and Weren’t Another Way to Be published by Gutter Books. Her work has been nominated for ‘Best of the Net’ 2023, the 2023 Backchannels Fiction Prize, the 2023 Derringer Award, and ‘The 2023 Best American Mystery and Suspense’ series. She tweets at @meredithcraigde and can be found at www.meredithcraigdepietro.com. She is working on her first novel.
Rahma O. Jimoh is a Nigerian writer and photographer. She is a lover of sunsets and monuments and has been published or has works forthcoming in Tab journal, Lucent Dreaming, Agbowo & others. She is an editor at Olumo Review. Pronouns: She/Her Twitter: @dynamicrahma