Fiction: "The Red Bicycle"

Story by Geoff Tuffli

++++ DATE 18.11.2042
++++ TIME 8:03am Pacific Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Los Angeles, United States of America

Ben Walsh pulled out the tiny notebook, placing it on the table as he slid the chewed pen off the binding. He flipped it open two-thirds of the way through, the dense handwriting almost unreadable at that size, but with paper as expensive as it was, efficiency and economy were simply facts of life. Ben squinted, and with a unconscious shake of his head scratched out two lines, redoing the math.

"Please tell me you aren't still thinking of doing this, Ben."

Ben looked up, pen spinning absently in his fingers. "I have to. Someone has to. We can't afford all of us here, Cian."

Cian shook his head. "Dad doesn't want to see you dead, either. This is crazy."

"I'm not planning on being dead. I'm not naive about how hard this will be, but it's doable. I've run the numbers a hundred times." Ben tapped the page he was on. "I don't think the Sierras are realistic, though. It'll have to be the coastal route. There's no way I can take 67 pounds of gear and supplies over those and maintain anything close to a reasonable time. I'll travel early morning and evening, hole up during the night and the middle of the day to keep my water loss from heat to a minimum. Also reduce chance of running into local police looking for a quick score."

"You don't even have a bike, Ben," Cian said, exasperated.

"Not yet. Murray's is still for sale."

"Eight hundred dollars you don't have."

"I will. Somehow. I have almost everything else ready. Just need to pick up a case of MREs tonight, and the bike will be the last thing. I have five hundred. Murray's not even using it. He's got to see sense."

Cian rubbed the bridge of his nose, screwing his eyes shut for a moment as he considered his words. "Okay, say I believe you. Convince me again how this isn't suicide."

"Alright," Ben said, flipping back through his notebook. "It's 1003 miles from here to Ashland taking a mostly coastal route. Up through Ojai through the Los Padres, circle around San Luis from the north, then take the 101 or anything parallel I can find through San Jose. From there, using the 101 as the primary route, I cut through the 199 after Crescent City to cross the border. With 67 pounds of weight, I should be able to comfortably make about fifty miles a day, maybe more, which'll make it about three weeks."

"They'll still have community watch patrols at the Oregon border, even there."

"Yeah, but there are a few fire roads running parallel. It won't be easy, but I can cut across them, then carry the bike overland. Worst case, it shouldn't be more than about a mile or two from what I can tell on the map," Ben said.

"Why not take a car at least as far as Sac?"

Ben shook his head. "Roads aren't safe. Besides, we don't have a car to spare."

"Dad would give you his if you really are going through with this," Cian offered half-heartedly.

"Even assuming I could get through there, electric repowering stations are just too sketchy. They'd force me to keep to the main roads. With a bike it'll take longer, but I can take backroads, even park trails if I have to. Less chance of wanna be road warriors trying to hold me up."

"You sure you can even go that far with that much weight?"

"It's doable, but it won't be easy," Ben admitted. "The biggest problem is going to be water. I am calculating 10 liters a day, so about twenty-two pounds. About the same for food, and the same again for sundries like toilet paper, first aid, repair kit, CO2 inflator and spare cartridges, sleeping bag, Peterson guides, maps, all that. I'll have food for three days before I'll need to find more, but water I'll have to get every day. Once north of San Francisco it shouldn't be too hard, but until I get there. Yeah."

Cian sat down across from him. "Why are you really doing this, Ben?"

Ben met his gaze, closed his notebook, sliding it back into his pocket. "You know why."

"I don't. Not really. We've made it work so far."

"That's crap, and you know it. There's no work. Rationing at the grocery stores isn't going away. You heard about Karin?" Ben asked. Cian shook his head. "She was fined three thousand for hoarding water. In her bathtub, Cian. Her own bathtub."

"It'll get better. This is just a downturn."

Ben shrugged. "Maybe. But every time it's gotten better, the next time it goes down it just goes down worse. This is the United States of America, Cian, and we have actual famine here. There are even stories of, well you know."

"Those are just stories, Ben."

"Are you sure?" Ben asked. "Are you absolutely certain, Cian? Because I'm not. People will kill for a gallon of water, and if it's long pig or your kid starving, which do you think it'll be? I'll tell you which it will be. It'll be Special Sunday pork sandwiches, and everybody just pretends they don't know where it came from. Or don't ask because that way they can tell themselves they don't know for sure."

Cian turned away. "Nobody's killing anybody, at least. Not for that."

"So far. But it's been happening in other parts of the world. There's no such thing as American exceptionalism anymore. We can starve just as well as a Brazilian or Iranian. There's no water, just the bare minimum from the desalinization plants that nobody can afford to pay for anyways. The topsoil's still purging into the air. There's not enough fertilizer for what remains. California is turning back into the desert it started out as."

"At least let Dad drive you as far as San Luis," Cian begged.

Ben shook his head. "If anything happened and he couldn't get back in time he'd lose his job. There are twenty guys who will take his job in a heartbeat. I am willing to risk myself here, as much because it'll give you here one less mouth to feed. That goes nowhere if we all lose the only job supporting the rest of us."

Ben's eyes softened. "Look, once I get up there and get settled, I'll send word, find a way to get the rest of you up there. You can't stay here forever. The state government isn't doing barely anything to keep things under control, and the feds have been so useless that Sacramento doesn't even pretend anymore to carry out Federal regulations. Half the time, the local strongmen are the local government."

"It's home, Ben," Cian said quietly. "What do you want me to say?"

Ben said nothing, and Cian stood and walked away. Ben stared into the distance towards the low mountains to the north for a long time, then pulled his notebook back out his pocket, cracking it open again.

++++ DATE 19.11.2042
++++ TIME 4:15am Pacific Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Los Angeles, United States of America

Someone was shaking him awake. Ben cracked an eye open to see Cian crouching over the mattress. "What's wrong?"

Cian's expression was unreadable. "Come with me," he said quietly.

Ben pushed himself to his feet, following Cian out of the apartment to the tiny gated section out front. Ben stopped, glanced at Cian, then back at the old red bicycle sitting there. "How did you afford..." he started to say, but Cian stopped him with the shake of his head.

"He doesn't know it's gone."

"You stole it?" Ben asked incredulously.

"I know. Spare me the lecture."

"I don't know what to say."

"Don't say anything. You picked up the MREs last night?" Ben nodded wordlessly. Cian continued, "Then pack up and head out. Now." He glanced at his watch. "You have at least four hours before Murray even might realize it's gone. Maybe more. You should be able to almost be to Ventura by then, and once you're on the 33 you should be home free."

Ben paused, then drew his brother into a tight embrace. "Thanks. Explain to Dad for me?"

"He knows."

"I'll get you out of here, too. I promise."

"Don't make promises you might not be able to keep, Ben."

"All right."

Twenty minutes later, and the old red bicycle was packed with panniers over the rear wheel and front bars. Ben was wearing a waterproofed duster fastened to the legs to keep out of the bicycle chain. Gingerly, he settled onto the seat. "I can't decide if I am exhilarated or just completely terrified," he admitted quietly.

"Good luck, Ben. Make us proud."

Ben nodded, and set his weight down onto the pedal. Cian stood and watched, long after the point at which the dark had swallowed up his brother.

He wondered if the dawn would ever come.