Pavement flashed beneath the front bike tire. Faster, faster, faster I pumped. Slower, slower, slower I seemed to go. Sun beams burned the back of my neck. I never was one to get out in the sun much, especially this summer. Who wanted the heat when you could sit in front of the TV all day eating ice cream and getting fat? At least that’s what my one and only friend just told me. My ex-friend.
He used to be the only one who didn’t make fun of me. Didn’t call me a fatso and other stuff I stuff down and don’t think about. The kids at school gave me nicknames that went with whatever I was eating.
“Hey fatty hamburger patty.”
“Hey big belly jelly.”
“Hey cream puff cheeks.”
The next hill loomed and my chubby calves burned. I couldn’t make it, but I had to. Had to prove I could if I wanted.
Sweat ran into the corners of my mouth. The salty tang made me crave French fries. Or a bag of potato chips. Right now, though, a giant gulp of water would taste best. My tongue was swelling in proportion to the hill I was halfway up.
After I had stormed out in the middle of a movie at my ex-friend’s house, I grabbed his bike, yelling at him that I could not eat for a week and lose all the weight I wanted to. Could ride the bike to the next state if I wanted.
I gasped for air, staring at the pavement of the neighborhood street I was pumping up. I’d never ridden a bike to or from my ex-friend’s house before. The seven blocks seemed like miles and miles. But I had to make it. Too late to turn back now.
Heat rushed through every pore on my face, the sides of my head pounded. I topped the hill but another one loomed. The bike quivered beneath me. My hands slipped from sweat and I gripped down on the handlebars. Spots danced on the pavement now, weird patterns of bright blues and reds on the dirty gray sidewalk.
An ocean of noise roared in my ears. The bike slowed. Cruel voices and names swirled around in my mind.
Then those noises faded and something else broke through.
Someone called my name. My real name. I let the tips of my tennis shoes drag the pavement still dancing with blue and red dots.
“Tommy? Are you okay?”
On the curb just ahead of me, a truck came to an abrupt halt and the driver hopped out. My ex-friend’s dad, Mr. Adams. Tall, lean, built. The kind of dad who would take you to church on Sundays. The kind I’d always wanted. If I had a dad. If mine hadn’t died before I had a chance to remember him.
I hung my head rather than look at Mr. Adams as I muttered, “Sorry I took Mark’s bike. I just wanted to go home.”
“You look like you’re about to pass out. Come on over to the truck.”
I slowly dismounted the bike, and made my legs follow him, vaguely aware I’d let the bike fall to its side. I hoped it didn’t get scratched up.
Mr. Adams held something into my still spotty vision. “Drink slow.”
I took the mini Gatorade and sipped it like he said. I didn’t want him to get mad at me. He didn’t. “What’s up, Tommy?”
I shrugged. Suddenly, what Mark had said didn’t seem cruel. He never meant to hurt me. He was my one and only friend.
“You want to come back to our house and finish the movie? Mark paused it.”
All I could do was nod and drain the last of the Gatorade while he put Mark’s bike in the bed of his truck.
On the short drive back, Mr. Adams said, “Before school starts up again, I promised Mark I’d take him to the gym and teach him safe ways to work out. You could come along, if it’s okay with your mom. But we’ll be going at 5:30 in the mornings. Think you can handle that?”
An air conditioned gym. I glanced out the window at the flying pavement and heat. “Yes sir.”
“I think you’ll like the strawberry protein shakes I make.” Mr. Adams winked at me. I grinned. Who knew but by the time school started I’d have a new tasty nickname, like Muscle Milkshake.
I could do it - with a little help.
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