Ride Towards the Story

It was a crisp autumn afternoon in the suburban neighborhood of Leibethra. The rainstorm from the previous day had fully blown away, leaving the manicured lawns, asphalt streets, and parked cars covered in a quilted layer of orange, yellow, and brown leaves. Squirrels skittered about, chasing one another through the leaves and up into trees, the occasional cat entering the fray to remind the squirrels whose neighborhood this really was. Some homes in the neighborhood still retained decorations from Halloween—carved pumpkins turning sickly green-brown as they wilted, thin paper skeletons and zombies missing pieces of themselves after being left out in the storm, and wet strands of fake spiderwebs tangled in bushes and tree branches. 

The only figure to be seen outside in this part of the suburb was Cleo, a young girl who looked to be around the age of eight. She was riding her bicycle on the sidewalk, passing house after house, whistling and humming to herself as she went. Cleo was dressed appropriately, if not a little oddly, for the weather—tan hiking boots with pink laces, dark blue jeans that were partially covered by a knee-length red skirt, a thick maroon wool sweater with colored instruments stitched into the fabric, and topped off with a white bicycle helmet decorated in a band of green laurel wreath stickers around its circumference. A child with a unique fashion sense to be sure.

Just as Cleo was passing one of the less well-kept houses in the cul de sac, a single-story ranch home with peeling paint and gutters overflowing with leaves, a fist-sized object came flying through the front window, the sound of shattering glass echoing through the street. Cleo stomped on the pedal brakes of her bike and came to a quick halt, the tires skidding a few inches along the sidewalk. The object tumbled end over end across the lawn and then slid to a stop just in front of Cleo’s bike.

With a tilt of her head and a raised eyebrow, Cleo studied the object. It was a wireless computer mouse, laying upside down, slowly spinning on its top. In random spots across the surface of the mouse’s plastic outer shell were chips and cracks. Part of the mouse had broken open, exposing some of the inner electronics of the device.

Looking across the uncut lawn and over the poorly trimmed shrubs to the window from which the computer mouse appeared, Cleo heard angry mutterings from inside. Tapping the bike’s kickstand down, Cleo strode across the lawn and up to the broken window, her boots crunching over broken bits of glass. Standing on tip-toes, she peered over the shrubs into what looked like an office. The room was a mess. Pens and pencils, notebooks and legal pads, and empty coffee mugs and cup-noodle ramen bowls were scattered about the small coffee table and loveseat at the center of the room. Sitting in front of the window was an old oak desk piled high with stacks of books, except at the center which sat an open laptop and a vacant mousepad. Sheets of paper littered the floor, some with only a single word on them and others that barely had any white left shining through the ink.

Pacing in the middle of it all, padding over the fallen papers in brightly colored mismatched socks, was Odessa Wilson. Her black hair was a bushy, disheveled mass of tangles. Deep gray bags sat below her eyes. A long-sleeved shirt with a picture of a fountain pen hung limply on her lithe frame. One leg of her purple pajama pants was rolled up to just above the knee while the other leg hung loosely and covered nearly the entire foot except for the toes.

While pulling her hair, Odessa said, “No, no, no. That won’t do. The readers will hate if I do that. I could instead do, nope, nope. They’ll hate that even more. Too cliche. Argh! My editor is going to kill me.”

“Are you okay?” Cleo asked, speaking through the roughly mouse-sized hole in the glass window.

“Whaaa!” Odessa shouted, stumbling back onto the couch, causing even more papers to pile onto the floor. Gaping, Odessa asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m Cleo.”

“Cleo?”

“Yep. Did you throw a mouse out the window?”

“Did I . . .” Odessa said, trailing off as her wide eyes wandered around the window. With a groan, she rose from the couch and walked to the window, gingerly opening it. “Crap. That’s going to be expensive.”

“So why’d you throw a mouse through a window?” Cleo asked, tilting her head and looking thoughtful. “Were you using the mouse as a weapon to slay a scary monster?”

“What? No, no. Of course not.”

“Did you get rid of it because it’s possessed by an evil demon?”

“Uh, no.”

“It the mouse really a grenade? It is about to explode? Are we gonna blow up?”

“What? No! Why would you—I just threw it because I’m angry. And frustrated. At-at my writing. And-and myself. That’s it.”

“Oh,” Cleo said, frowning. “That’s boring.”

“Uh, sorry to disappoint?”

“That’s okay. So, you can’t write? Why not? You have plenty of paper and pens lying around. And a laptop. Those make writing easy.”

Odessa blew out a frustrated breath. “If only those were enough.”

Tilting her head to the other side, Cleo asked, “What more do you need?”

“Oh, so many things,” Odessa said, resuming her pacing around the room, stepping on already well-trodden pieces of paper. She picked up a stack of papers filled with words, scribbles, scratches, and scrawls in black and blue and red ink. “Words that don’t feel like sludge or bile.” A few papers were emphatically tossed aside, blossoming outwards and floating erratically to different corners of the room. “A plot that doesn’t feel contrived and engages the readers.” This time the papers were tossed straight down, splattering on the carpet below. “Meaningful character development that feels organic instead of forced.” These papers were crunched into a fist and tossed towards an already overflowing waste bin. “Satisfying resolutions to things foreshadowed in the first two books.” These last sheaves of paper were torn to pieces and fell like giant snowflakes onto the coffee table.

Coming to a halt behind the desk, looking out the broken window at Cleo with downcast eyes, Odessa collapsed onto the office chair and her shoulders slumped low. “I have none of that. For months now, nothing I have brainstormed or written works. None of it has felt right.” Odessa leaned down onto the desk and buried her head in her arms.

Staring thoughtfully at Odessa, with hands behind back, Cleo slowly bounced on her feet, shifting back and forth from toes to heels. “So, you’re stuck?” she asked. 

“Very,” Odessa mumbled through her arms.

“Soooo, why not go on a bike ride then?”

“A what?” Odessa asked, glancing over at Cleo and wiping a sleeve over her red eyes.

“A bike ride! You know . . .” Cleo said, lifting her legs up and down, mimicking riding an invisible bike.

“Why?”

“Because it’ll be really fun!”

Odessa smiled despite herself, wishing she still had access to that indomitable spirit of a child. Shaking her head, she said, “I can’t go on a bike ride.”

“Why not?”

“I have a deadline to meet and I need to get back to work.”

“I thought you said you were stuck.”

“I did.”

“You said you’ve been stuck, for like, a really really long time.”

“Yes, I did.”

“So why not go on a bike ride? If you haven’t gotten much done for months I doubt you’ll get much done now.”

“I uh,” Odessa said, taken aback by the girl’s bluntness. After a few moments unsure of how to proceed, the obvious answer came to her. “I can’t go on a bike ride because I don’t own a bike.”

“You can borrow mine,” Cleo said smiling and gesturing over to her bike still parked on the sidewalk.

“I’m too big for it.”

Scrunching her nose, Cleo looked Odessa up and down, and said, “No you’re not. Not really. You’re actually kinda small for an adult . . .”

Odessa looked down at herself, scowling. “Thanks for reminding me.” Looking back up at Cleo, Odessa had only one real excuse left, and it was a lame one at that. “I don’t own a helmet.”

“You can borrow mine,” Cleo said, swiping her helmet off her head in one fluid motion, revealing a head of braided almond hair.

Odessa opened and closed her mouth multiple times, but no words were formed. There were no more excuses to be had. She had been outwitted by a child.

Overwhelmed by Cleo’s earnest, hopeful expression, Odessa sighed, “Fine.” She rose from her chair and trudged out of the room, slipping awkwardly on one of the paper piles as she went. 

“Yay!” Cleo yelled, raising a triumphant fist into the air.

A few seconds later Odessa emerged from the house, wrestling her way into a faded black, nearly gray, hoodie. In a pair of hastily tied sneakers, Odessa strode across the lawn towards Cleo’s bike. Painted in a rich brass with thin swirly white patterns, the bike came complete with white tires supported by brass colored spokes, red streamers attached to the ends of the handlebars, and an empty tan wicker basket. Attached to the right handlebar was an old fashioned shiny silver bicycle bell. Straddling the bike, Odessa deflated somewhat. While the bike was indeed small for her, it was not too small to the point where she could not ride it.

Cleo offered up her helmet with a big smile.

Accepting the helmet, Odessa said, “You know, if I was taller, this wouldn’t be happening.”

“Sure it would. I would’ve just arrived with a bigger bike.”

Odessa gave Cleo a questioning glance as she strapped on the helmet, it more resting rather than fitting on her head. Cleo, however, did not elaborate. Instead, she excitedly bounced up and down on her feet and kept glancing between Odessa and the bicycle bell. Rolling her eyes, Odessa gave in and rang the bell.

The light ching-ching of the bell filled the air, and like a blast of wind, Odessa was hit with memories of her childhood back in Sacramento, riding her bike through the tree-lined neighborhood streets with her friends, laughing and yelling at the top of their lungs. A quick giggle escaped her.

Rather wobbly at first, Odessa began pedaling the bike down the lane. It had been years, nearly a decade, since she had ridden a bicycle. Luckily, living in a cul de sac meant Odessa did not have to worry too much about cars, not moving ones at any rate. Her balance stabilized as she rounded the perimeter of the cul de sac’s bulb, old muscle memories returning from some far off, forgotten realm. Turning back towards Cleo, Odessa increased her speed and the young girl began to cheer her on. Emboldened, Odessa pedaled faster and faster, passing Cleo and racing towards the end of the street. With Cleo’s cheering fading, Odessa’s own involuntary cheering took its place. When she got to the end of the street, instead of returning home, she turned onto the cross-street and rode down it, pedaling as fast as she could, leaving a swirling trail of leaves in her wake. 

Cleo stood on the sidewalk, watching Odessa disappear into the neighborhood, a satisfied and knowing look on her face. Bending down, she picked up the discarded computer mouse, cupping it in her hand and petting it as if the object were an actual animal. Glancing over at Odessa’s broken window, a mischievous grin formed on Cleo’s lips.

Racing through the neighborhood streets, the setting sun blanketing the sky in a rich gradient of oranges, Odessa was surrounded by every hue of autumn. The crisp air filling her nostrils. Odessa identified the sweet smells of pies and tarts, the complex aromas of soups and stews, and the savory fragrance of Mr. O’Brien’s mulled wine. Her stomach growled loudly in protest, having been sustained on nothing but coffee, cheap ramen, and takeout for the last three months. Occasionally, through a cracked window or from an open garage, she would hear loud conversations and laughter. A group of kids, probably a few years older than Cleo, passed by on their own bikes, casting queer looks over their shoulders at Odessa. Odessa figured she must have looked a bit mad, screaming like a banshee as she rode down the street on an only slightly too small bike in her pajamas and an ill-fitting helmet. She did not care for she was overcome with joy and wonder at that moment. 

How long had she been cooped up in that house writing paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, word after word, just to throw it all away? How long has it been since she had smelled something other than coffee and ink? How long had it been since she had heard anything other than the scratching of pens, the clickety-clack of a keyboard, and groans of frustration? 

“Too long. Far, far too long,” she thought to herself.

On and on, Odessa rode through the neighborhood losing track of time and place, passing a few roads and a line of houses she did not remember being there six months ago. When her legs began to scream and wail, she slowed and meandered to a stop, finding herself at the entrance to Olympus Park. She was breathing heavily, struggling to gulp in enough air for her burning lungs, and the arty in her throat pumping painfully fast.

“I really need to start exercising again,” Odessa coughed out. 

Walking the bike along the cobblestone pathway around the park’s large pond, Odessa came to a metal-framed wooden bench. She collapsed onto the bench after leaning the bike against it.

While she calmed down, Odessa let her gaze wander around the park. A mother and son were crouching next to the pond, throwing small clumps of bread into the water and watching the ducks quickly dart in to snatch up the pieces. A senior citizen couple slowly walked the path around the pond, each holding a cane and each other’s hand. A trio of warmly dressed teenage girls were halfheartedly kicking around a soccer ball while they talked and sipped from disposable coffee cups.

Odessa took it all in and for the first time in a long while she felt calm, lighter even. Deadlines, obligations, expectations, and bills did not exist here in the park. Her mind was blank and she allowed herself to simply be. After a time, she laid down on the bench, dangling her feet over the armrest, and looked up at the slowly darkening sky, the bright orange-yellow clouds saying goodbye to the sun. She closed her eyes and the sounds of the park slowly faded away.

Hours later, Odessa awoke to a twinkling field of stars above her. She continued lying on the bench, gazing up at the night sky, picking out the planets and constellations, and letting her mind wander to this and that. Just after she finished tracing Cassiopeia, an idea struck her.

“That could work,” she said, eyebrows raising. More ideas spawned from the first, and even more from the second and third, like the exponential division of microscopic cells. 

Climbing off the bench, Odessa began rummaging through the pockets of her hoodie and pajama pants. “I need, I need, where is . . .” 

Like many devoted storytellers, Odessa always left the house with a small notebook and pen, so whenever fleeting ideas flew by her, she was ready to capture them. Almost always, anyway. So unexpected was this bike ride that she had not remembered to grab notebook nor pen. 

“Maybe if I race home fast enough I can still get them down,” Odessa said, rushing over to the bike that was thankfully still there after her impromptu nap. As she was straddling the bike and preparing to don the helmet, Odessa spotted a curious sight. A palm-sized notebook decorated in smiling and frowning theatre mask stickers rested at the bottom of the bike’s wicker basket. Stuck in the rings of the notebook was a simple gray office pen.

“I don’t remember seeing those before,” Odessa said, reaching down into the basket. Flipping through the notebook, Odessa found all of the pages blank. “Must be new.”

Uncapping the pen and testing it out, Odessa began writing furiously in the notebook, desperately needing to get all of the ideas down—lines of dialogue, setting descriptions, modified plot points, new characters and scenes—each idea a new possibility, an exciting new thread to explore. A relaxed smile settled in on Odessa’s lips as page after page was filled. The words flew from pen to page of nearly their own accord, Odessa acting only as a humble guide. She was not telling the characters what to do, instead, they were telling Odessa what they had done. It had been months since her characters had spoken to her like this. She was giddy at hearing their voices so clearly again. It had been so long since Odessa had felt this way, this unfettered.

With not a single blank page left in the notebook, Odessa finally allowed the pen to still. Beaming, she raised the notebook triumphantly to the star-filled sky. A second later a soft gust of wind hit her. “Bloody hell,” she said, quickly retracting the notebook and wrapping her arms around her shivering self. “It’s freaking freezing out here now.”

A steady wind had set in, its chill biting through Odessa’s clothes and leaving her ears and nose numb. After zipping up the hoodie and shoving her hair into the hood, Odessa placed Cleo’s helmet in the basket and began slowly pedaling her way back through the neighborhood, the soft yellow glow of the streetlights guiding her home.

Odessa did not find Cleo waiting for her when she returned. Odessa figured the young girl had probably walked home after realizing Odessa would not be returning anytime soon. Odessa hoped Cleo did not live too far. Hopefully, Cleo would return tomorrow to reclaim her bike and Odessa could find a way to thank the kind girl. She should probably start by replacing the notebook. While Odessa did not have any notebooks that were covered in fun little stickers, she did have a few leather-bound ones Cleo might like.

After depositing the bike in the garage, Odessa stumbled on Jell-O like legs back to her office, ink-filled notebook in hand. When she entered the room, an unexpected sight greeted her. The window was closed and no longer broken. The glass did not so much as have a small chip on it. No one would ever surmise that a baseball-sized object had been thrown through it earlier in the day. 

Bracing herself, Odessa warily cracked opened the window. The glass did not shatter. Instead, a rush of cool air flowed into the room. Sinking onto the office chair, Odessa stared out the window in confused amazement.

Shaking her head, Odessa looked down at her laptop and was greeted by a second surprising sight. Resting at the center of the laptop’s keyboard was her wireless computer mouse, and it was not broken anymore. It looked just the way it had before she had thrown it through her window—used looking with dust and grime stuck in the crevices, but still very much all in one piece and functional. The mouse also had a new addition to it. Stuck to the top of it was a sticker of an anime version of what looked to be a Greek goddess wearing a green laurel wreath headpiece in her braided almond hair, dressed in flowing red and blue robes with a maroon shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and holding a writing tablet in one hand and a lyre in another.

The sticker had an uncanny likeness to Cleo.

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