by Victoria Freund

First Place Winner of the Chicago Writers Association First Chapter Contest

Chapter 1

Ultimately, it was the lanyard that killed me.  A single key anchored the nylon necklace; a lightweight charm that swung and danced while I rode my bike in the spring air.  Just before I crashed into the aluminum frame of the SUV, the lanyard looped under my right handlebar as I jerked my body quickly to the left in an effort to avoid the accident.  Since I was tethered to the bike with no free range of motion, my neck slammed into the hood before I flew backward.  I remember the heat from the engine transferring to my face and the incredible pain on my forehead before my skull slammed onto the concrete behind me.  I saw my bike fly above me like a clumsy, metal acrobat before it slammed down above my head, its rubber tire grazing my face.  I was conscious and not in pain.  A bevy of yelling surrounded me in a range of octaves and I decided to give myself a minute before I stood up and wiped myself off.

It was a gift from my daughter, the lanyard.  Eliza saved her allowance and went shopping with her dad a few weeks before Christmas. She wrapped it in newspaper because “Mom, I know how much you like to recycle,” and her smile almost reached her perfect, soft ears as she handed it to me on Christmas Day.

She stood in front of me while I opened it, jumping and squealing in anticipation and I did my best to look astounded.  Bright pink and embroidered with purple hearts, the lanyard was more suitable for someone 30 years my junior, but she had a point; it was the perfect place to hang my key while I rode my bike.  She clapped her hands excitedly after I hung it from my neck and I kissed her forehead in appreciation as I piled her silky curls in my hand.

“My favorite gift yet,” I whispered softly since my lips were touching her delicate, six-year old ear.  As our hug tightened, I looked over her shoulder at my husband. Donned in a robe, holding a coffee cup in his right hand, he mocked the childish gift by making the thumbs down symbol and comically sticking out his tongue.  I silently chuckled and buried my face in Eliza’s strawberry-shampooed hair, savoring the moment of this beautiful Christmas morning.

It was April by the time I looped my key through the tight metal circle on the lanyard.  The metal spiral was tight, and I split my longest nail below the cuticle as I slid the key through the spiral.  I winced and caught the blood in my mouth since there was not time to go back inside for a band-aid.  Since the sight of blood would have worried Eliza, I turned my back toward her and resorted to heavy breathing rather than curse words to ease the pain.  Putting pressure on the nail, I tucked my fist into my sweatshirt and we geared up in helmets and pulled our bikes from the garage.  ­

The rain was constant that spring in Colorado so our bike rides to school began a little later than usual.  The first morning that the sun was out and the ground was dry,

Eliza incessantly pleaded with me to ride even after I told her we should drive since I had to get back for an appointment. 

“Please, please, please, please, please.  We can leave early so you can get back on time.  Look, I already have my shoes on.  Pleeease, pleeease!”

As usual I gave into her childish persuasion, mostly since I enjoyed watching her dance around with joy when I conceded, but also because a waist-high, bear hug immediately followed- my favorite sentiment from my only child.

We rode together on the sidewalk, my mountain bike trailing her floral stamped Huffy; pom pom strings flailing off the sides of the hand grips.  I waved at neighbors and she rang her bell when they waved back.  The spring weather lifted spirits in the town of Cahill and residents were happy to emerge from the winter dormancy.

It was a short ride since the school was only six blocks away.  After Eliza locked her bike to the closest metal spiral on the elementary school grounds, she picked up her backpack and sprinted toward the school door dismissing me, only to stop mid-way and run back toward me. I stood straddled over the crossbar watching her, anxious to take off the helmet that I only wore to set an example.

Eliza locked her brown baby-doll eyes with mine, “The key necklace looks really good on you, Momma.”

Her face beamed with the same Christmas morning pride before she turned back toward school, her toffee curls bouncing just above her paisley backpack.  A surge of warmth flooded my body and a smile crested my lips.  I already looked forward to seeing her in six hours, 30 minutes.  When the final school bell rang and the doors slammed shut, I pulled my fist from my sweatshirt which now had dots of blood on the cuff.  The bleeding stopped, but my finger still throbbed and I would have to wrap the nail with a band-aid before yoga.

I removed my helmet and hung it from my right handlebar.  My neck itched like crazy and I didn’t know whether to blame it on the strap from my helmet or the cheap, imported lanyard that I was now bound to for life.

I peddled quickly toward the house, appreciating the earthy smell of spring.  Landscaping trucks lined the streets, standing idle while workers combed front yards; the whir of their machines tilling dormant dirt back to life.

With only 10 minutes before Jane was to pick me up for class, I was hoping to down one more iced-coffee.  I increased my speed while I turned the corner causing my helmet to move wildly on the handlebar; swinging with my strides and bobbing with each dip in the pavement.   Subconsciously remembering last year’s injury, I lifted my bottom off the seat just in time to avoid a crotch injury from the pothole before the hill.  When are they going to fix that?  I need to write a letter to the village.  I bounced through unscathed and praised myself with a smirk.  The shorter way home meant encountering a steep hill, but I needed the extra few minutes to brew the coffee.

Since the landscapers glided back and forth over the sidewalks, I stayed on the street, weaving in and out of their parked vehicles.  Judging the hill before me, I stood up and leaned forward, then lowered my gear and placed all my body weight on the pedals.  My chin dug into my neck as if the downward focus would transfer power from my over-worked thighs. 

Wincing and grunting to the top of the hill, the pressure suddenly lessened on my thighs and I lifted my chin in relief.  My nose began to protest the fresh blooms and buds so I wiped it against my Lycra sleeve while I supported myself with my left arm.  Three sneezes later, I made a mental note to start carrying packs of travel tissue with me in my pocket and stock up on allergy medicine. 

Still coasting from my uphill efforts, I quickly approached an intersection two blocks from my house.  A stop sign was planted at the end of each street, but the white SUV driving toward me did not slow.  To my left I saw a toddler approaching the intersection, his mother trailing behind him with a stroller.  I feared he would cross so I screamed and waved my right arm wildly at the SUV, signaling it to stop. 

Through the windshield I saw the driver; she was leaning forward with her neck craned, staring upward in child wonderment- as if she had never seen a sky so blue.  I screamed again and this time she heard me and jerked the wheel to the left, toward the bike lane.  My body froze while my bike whizzed forward.  Time slowed as I crouched down and grasped my brake.  As I flew forward, the car screeched to a halt and then I was whipped backward.  The driver rushed out, I heard her screaming with panic.  I heard her call for help, crying and high-pitched.  It took effort to open my heavy eyes but I managed and was able to see her leaning over me.  My head felt as if it was in a vice and I felt a pool of warmth around my neck.  I couldn’t move my body.  Something was burning.  The driver came closer to me- her face wet from tears and distorted from anguish.  Her hands shook as she secured her hanging hair behind her ears.  While her nervous hands moved around inches above my body, we never touched.  Pain stabbed my skull and all light snapped to black.

And now, lying in a hospital bed, listening to a rhythmic beep, feeling so heavy that my eyelids won’t open, I wonder if I was already unconscious when I saw her image, or did she really look like me?  Her hair was thin and dark like mine, and her pale face was specked with freckles.  What I try to remember now in the heaviness and fog, are her eyes.  Eyes that I have only seen on my mother and in the mirror; the left one, a dark caramel color on the outside fading to light syrup near the iris.  The right one- half hazel, half blue. 

Recalling her image taxes my brain and I feel as if I’m swimming through syrup.  I remember the deafening screech of the tires as my skull slammed against pavement of the tree-lined, suburban street so close to my home, my iced coffee.  But did I really see her image, her eyes?  Silence now surrounds me, accompanied by intermittent beeps and the sound of Darth Vader breaths as I lie motionless, trying to think.  Am I breathing?  Can I move? Fading in, fading out, I suddenly feel heavy again and hear nothing.