Pete had been away a long time, years in fact had passed since he had last seen these hills and canyons, smelled their distinct dirt scent, ridden their twisting trails. First school, then work, and marriage had forced him to move further and further afield. There had been some returns, those quick visits to family and friends, their shortness mostly unsatisfying for everyone but, like himself, most of the people he associate with the old neighborhood had moved away as well. Each visit there were fewer and fewer around.
He was maybe a half mile into the ride when he heard the first whoop of excitement. There was a familiar pitch to it that he couldn't quite place. It troubled him for a moment, and instantly brought forth a wave of memories. But then he thought those kind of shouts probably always sounded the same, and he turned his focus back to the trail. The second shout came a couple minutes later and carried with it that same familiarity. It came rolling down the canyon from somewhere up ahead and, in response Pete, almost instinctively, quickened his pace.
A favored section of the trail stretched before him - shaded from the hottest sun, little rollers and banked berms, twisting and splashing through the stream. Yeah, he could understand the enthusiastic whoops which, came a third time, just as he wheeled an embankment down into the shallow waters. This time the yell struck him a blow to the heart, so clear was the peal, so defined the memory of the last time he heard it in this place. Just as the voice came from up the trail now, so too in the past did he always seem to be chasing it.
Sean Noonan was one of this oldest friends - instant chums at Oak Grove Elementary. None of the other kids around and, truth be known, many of the adults as well, could agree that the letters S, e, a, and n should be pronounced Shawn, so everyone simply preferred to call him Nooner instead. Nooner was the most adventurous of their little generational bunch, and since his planned and spontaneous outings invariably ended with huge smiles, laughter, satisfaction, and a weeks worth of bragging rights to go with the many cuts and bruises, Pete always sought to fully join in, or at least tag along, attempting to follow in his friends' wake.
A shadow moved quickly through the trees and undergrowth, far enough ahead that neither form nor color could be defined. Though intent upon the pursuit Pete, never-the-less, couldn't help but notice that there were no wet tracks leaving the water at any of the stream crossings. Odd.
After chasing shadows for a quarter mile Pete reached the gradual climb out from the canyon bottom and began to pound his way up. As he knew it would the top opened up into a broad, airy plateau where he expected to finally catch sight of the rider he was pursuing. There was a lot of sky, distant mountains, but the only person in view was a trail runner headed towards him. As he approached, Pete asked the runner if he had seen another rider pass by - the lack of response made the situation all the more odd. Though he momentarily glanced back, a strange look of confusion on his face, the runner continuing on down the trail without a word. Maybe there was a side trail Pete was unfamiliar with? Maybe the other rider was moving that much faster? Whatever the case, any impetus for continuing the pursuit dissipated into the open air. As his breathing and pulse settled back into a resting range, Pete stood over his bike in a kind of daze, thinking of the first time he rode the canyon.
It was a Friday and the afternoon school bell was just about to ring when Nooner leaned across the classroom aisle and asked if he wanted to join a ride after school. Pete knew all but one of the six kids gathered at the trailhead gate: all but the one were from the same grade. All the kids rode bikes, some old, some birthday new; they rode the streets through town, to the park for baseball, to the store for milk, but this would be the first time they would ride into the woods beyond town. A real adventure. That day, by the time he reached the plateau Pete was alone, having chased the shadowy form of Nooner all along the lower portion of the canyon, the other kids stretched out all along the the lengthy trail.
"Nothing's changed" he thought until his reverie was broken by a couple ravens nearby, startling him with the sound of bones rolling somewhere deep in their throats. "What do you know?", he rhetorically asked the pair. The remainder of the ride passed uneventfully in a rather uninspired fashion. His thoughts kept wandering beyond the trail to that image of Nooner riding elusively ahead and how he might be able to track him down over the next couple days.
After that first ride Pete frequently chased Nooner through the hills and, occasionally even managed to hold his own. Most of the rides were of a couple, maybe a few, hours duration, but there were also weekend expeditions during the summer. Nooner never held back during any of those rides, and there wasn't a one during which he failed to let loose with one of his characteristic, emphatic whoops as he lost traction, gained air, railed a berm, or simply called attention to whatever vista happened to strike him at any given moment.
Two full days passed before Pete was able to make it into the canyon again. Looking back on the morning of the third day he thought of all the people he had seen during the preceding forty-eight hours, people he had not seen in years, some he thought had moved from the area, others he was sure had passed away. What he could not remember were the conversations he had with those people; sifting through his memory all he could dredge up were strange muffled whispers. It was almost as if everyone wished to avoid talking about his old friend. In those meetings eyes held his, lips moved, but it was as if a fog absorbed all sound, whipped it from his memory. He felt there was something disturbing about that, but could not bring himself to be concerned, strangely content to let it be.
His questions were going nowhere and time was running out. If he was ever going to find Nooner, it had to be this day, for tomorrow he flew back across country; it was do or die and he was determined to not give up the chase, not let his friend escape this time. He rode up and down the canyon all morning, stopping frequently to soak in the day, relive the memories. The ravens were out again, more of them this time. They perched in clusters on the twisted branches above him wherever he stopped. During those moments they were silent, black eyes seeming to bore into him, piercing. Once he began to roll, however, their cackling voices both preceded him up the trail, and followed from near behind. Several times he could have sworn they spoke in demanding tones - "clear away," or "one way," he was not sure which.
It was late in the day, and nearly dusk when he finally heard the "whooooooo!" from up ahead and, turning on his light, set off in pursuit. Several times the yell came from off to the side, forcing Pete to stop for a moment and consider. In this part of the canyon trails wove around, but almost always came back to the main path. After twenty minutes of hide and seek, Marco Polo, tag, or whatever similar game springs to mind, he caught sight of a light, still ahead.
The rider up there was climbing now. Pete knew this part of the trail well - it rose out of this canyon before descending into the next one over. Redoubling his efforts made it impossible to call out, yet Pete believed he had closed the gap before the top. That would be a first. In the past it was always Nooner pulling away. The descent into the other canyon was a tricky one, even in the light, but his confidence was high now and he rode in greater command than ever before. Reaching the canyon bottom Pete found himself in complete darkness except for the beam cast by his headlight. At this point there was only one way to go and that was down canyon and back toward the valley. The trees grew thick here, enclosing the canyon bottom like a tunnel with dense canopy of intertwining branches and leaves overhead. The trail snaked in and out of the stream, the splash of water making the suddenly chill air seem even cooler.
Rounding a bend after a couple minutes' ride Peter entered a small, sheltered clearing. Standing off to one side was Nooner, bike laid at his feet, back to Pete, motionless and staring at the ground. Pete wanted to call out immediately, but for some reason hesitated, content to watch whatever was unfolding in front of him.
Dismounting he began to walk toward the other side of the clearing, yet his steps were agonizingly slow, as if he were walking through a long tunnel, the goal, a distant point of light remaining small and ever so distant. At one point during that long walk he clearly hear Nooner say "another ride for you, buddy. Wish you were here for it." He bent over, placed something on the ground, then turned and picked up his bike, and ever so quickly pedaled out of the hollow and into the trees. In that time Pete could only watch, unbelieving as Nooner seemed to dissolve like a wisp of smoke into the air, a shadow merging into the dark of the woods.
Returning his attention to the spot where Nooner had stood, Pete now noticed a small cross and a few bottles of beer, some opened, others not. There were other things scattered about, mostly bike stuff - inner tubes, a patch kit, some spokes, wrappers from various food-stuffs. He hadn't noticed them before, but there were ravens as well, many ravens perched in the surrounding trees, hidden behind their black plumage, and suddenly calling out in a language he understood - "dark", "death", "go." Pete jerked his head up at the sound, startled by the fierce insistence of their calls. The chorus went on, a deep pulse in the woods, and Pete swiveled his head around, from tree to tree, seeking the source of each morbid call. All the noise made thought confused, if not impossible, the passage of time lost until, suddenly, all sound ceased and the present returned, Pete's eyes focused upon the small cross illuminated at the end of his headlight. Upon the horizontal arm was written a single name. It was not the name Pete had come to expect it would be, the name of the phantom that had led him to that spot. Instead, the name engraved deep into the wood, was his own - Peter O'Malley.
(I don't normally write much fiction, but when I do it is usually for the annual Spooky Hollow short story. There is a reason I don't usually write fiction but it is different, a change of pace, kind of fun, is what it is, and there you go. Thank goodness it is only once a year,)