“Think that’s the last thing,” Clay said as he handed the cooler to Keeley. She shoved it to the back of the truck bed and then hoped down to admire their handiwork. A tent, some sleeping bags, an air mattress, and now the cooler, took up a third of Clay’s truck bed.
“So we’re ready for the wilderness then Mr. Whitlow?” Keeley asked as she stared down at him, trying to suppress a yawn. Camping was great. Getting up for it at five o’clock in the morning was not.
He nodded, “Almost,” he said spinning around and heading to his garage. Keeley sat down on the tailgate and leaned her head against the side, preparing to doze off. But when she saw what Clay was pushing, her drowsiness left momentarily, replaced by sincere interest.
It looked like a small modified trike of some sort. Instead of an engine and handlebars though, there was a little seat and a small black cushion tied around something sticking up in front of the front wheel. There were what looked like bike pedals attached to the front wheel like normal.
“What is that?” She asked curiously.
“It’s a handcycle,” he explained with a boyish smirk. He rolled it up a piece of plywood, a makeshift ramp.“You didn’t think we were just going to sit in a tent all weekend did you?”
Keeley shrugged. Honestly, she hadn’t known what to expect. She’d learned over the past few weeks that there was a lot Clay could do in his chair, but wouldn’t have guessed camping or cycling were two of them. “Well, I was hoping there’d be some tent time,” she said, trying to sidestep the question.
“Oh, there will be.” Clay grinned. He pointed to a blue bike leaning against the wall of his garage that she hadn’t noticed before. “And that one’s for you. Seat might be a little tall, but we can adjust it.”
Keeley walked over and grabbed it, rolling it towards the truck and fingering the handlebars lightly. It’d been years since she’d been on a bike, much less a mountain bike. She hoped she still remembered how. Hopefully that’s something you don’t forget. Kind of like tying your shoes, she thought desperately.
Keeley was aware of the grin spreading across her face as she watched Clay’s muscles ripple in the tight dry-fit shirt as he easily lifted the bike into the truck. He gave it a fond look and then smiled wryly. And that’s when she realized it was his old bike.
He gave the tailgate a final pat before he closed it. Then looked to her with a charming smile on his face and gave her thumbs up. “Now we’re ready for the wilderness.”
The sun was just starting to peak over the trees as they wound down the paved road running through Nantahala National Forrest. Keeley rolled the window down, hoping the cool morning air would wake her up a little more. She breathed the mountain air in deeply and felt a little nudge of homesickness.
Clay turned left off the main road following a sign that read “Primitive Camping”. They passed a few campsites and a few bikers getting an early start. Clay gave them a friendly wave and they returned it as they
pedaled quickly past.
It wasn’t long before they pulled in front of a little clearing where an orange tent was already set up. Clay cut the engine and turned to her with a grin. “Here we go.”
She hopped out quickly and went to unload some of the gear. Clay quickly transferred out of the truck and came around to join her. He grabbed the sleeping bags and set them in his lap; Keeley grabbed the cooler.
Normally Clay covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. But Keeley noticed that it took twice as long to get from the truck to the tent rolling over grass and the occasional tree root than it would have taken if he was just wheeling over concrete. Twice as much effort, she noted seeing the fine layer of sweat on his head. She wondered if she should’ve offered to help.
“Hey!” he yelled loudly with a grin, pushing the question out of her mind. “Hey! Where is everybody?”
A petite woman with black hair pulled into a ponytail and glasses poked her head out of the tent. “Probably covering their ears with their pillows because of your yelling,” she said with a smile as she went back in, leaving the flap hanging open. “Just like Tuck Spencer is currently doing.”
Clay wheeled slowly over to the tent and poked his head in. “Tuck. Get your ass out here.”
Keeley heard a muffled yell from inside and saw Clay roll his eyes. “Well get some pants on and then get out here.” He looked over at Keeley with a smile. “Got someone I want you to meet.”
Keeley felt her heart flutter at the way he said “Got someone I want you to meet”. It was nice to hear someone refer to her in that manner again, instead of “Oh, that’s just my wife.”
After a few minutes an attractive red-headed man with windbreaker pants and a dry-fit shirt stepped out of tent. She assumed that he, and not the woman who’d greeted them, had been Clay’s college roommate. He shook hands with Clay and then leaned down and pulled him in for a brief hug. “Good to see you man,” she heard him whisper. Then he turned to look at Keeley.
“You brought this pretty girl on our camping trip?” he asked Clay in a teasing tone.
Keeley grinned and spoke before Clay could answer. “I spent two months last summer in the Sonoran Desert for work. I think I can handle the Nantahala Forest.”
Clay reached over to give her a high-five. Tuck grinned broadly and she knew she’d passed whatever the hell sort of test that had been. “I’m Tuck Spencer. You must be Ms. Keeley Burns.”
She felt her heart flutter again at the fact that Tuck had known her name without her telling him. That meant either Clay had talked about her or Tuck Spencer was a creepy stalker of some sort. Keeley was going to give them both the benefit of the doubt and go with the former.
Tuck started asking Clay twenty questions: how the drive had been, if they’d had trouble finding the spot, how he was feeling—a question that earned a friendly slug in the arm from Clay— if he’d brought the bikes, etc.
Keeley smiled at their easy banter. Tuck seemed as easy going as Clay; she was liking him more and more. Just then the black haired woman came out of the tent. “You came!” she yelled happily and immediately bent down to give him a hug.
“I said I would,” Clay laughed. “Sara, this is my girlfriend Keeley. Keeley, this is Sara.”
Keeley’s hand was ignored and bypassed as Sara enveloped her in a hug. “It’s so good to meet you,” she said with a pleasant smile. Keeley liked her instantly. “You said you were in the Sonoran last summer? I worked at ShortFest last April in the Coachella Valley.”
“Small world,” Keeley replied. She liked Sara already. “I was on an archaeological research team working near the remnants of a small village in the shadow of the Pinacate Peaks.”
Sara’s nod indicated she knew exactly where Keeley was talking about. Their conversation flowed easily for the next ten minutes or so until they noticed that Clay and Tuck had disappeared. A quick search found them back at Clay’s truck, all the gear on the ground and admiring the handcycle.
“—brakes are on the handlebars. Going downhill you just grab the handlebars and sort of coast, just like you’d do on a regular bike,” Clay grinned up at Tuck as he was explaining. Keeley hadn’t seen him this excited since they’d gone to the carnival. Clay was an unusually at ease and happy person (something that unnerved Keeley), but at the moment, explaining the handcycle to Tuck, he seemed downright jolly. “And then the steering wheel is attached to cables through here,” he pointed. “Which allows it to pivot side to side like this. The steering wheel rotates on its axis.”
Tuck nodded appreciatively. “Nice Whitlow. Sounds like a big step up from the last one.”
“Damn straight it is,” Clay said laughing. “I can make it all the way to the top in this one.”
“So that’s what we’re doing then?” Sara asked, excitedly joining the conversation. “Top of Flint Ridge?”
Keeley’s mind started to drift a little bit as the trio discussed bikes and trails, feeling a little on the outs. Until her ears honed in on something Tuck said. “Did you say eleven and a half miles?”
Oops, Keeley thought as everyone turned to look at her outburst. Clay had an amused crooked grin on his face. “Five and a half there, five and a half back. The trail leads to the headwaters of the river and a great view. Come on Keeley,” he said looking up at her with puppy dog eyes. “You won’t even realize how long it is.”
She laughed and held her hands up in defense. “I was just asking if I’d heard correctly. That’s all.” Meanwhile she was thinking, oh God.
While Tuck fixed the seat of the bike and Sara threw some lunch together for later, Keeley and Clay worked on setting up their tent. Keeley laid it out and Clay went to work on setting up some of the support rods.
Keeley laughed a little as she looked at Clay just as one of the flex rods smacked him in the face. “Having
trouble there Mr. Whitlow?”
He smiled wryly and wrinkled his nose, something he did when he was annoyed. “Never have been good at the tent raising thing.”
From where he was working about twenty feet away, Tuck snorted. “Understatement of the century.” He winked at Keeley, “Just make sure to double check everything he touches Keeley.”
Sara nodded and laughed, mumbling something about Cashiers. Clay playfully hurled a stake that was sitting beside his chair in the direction of his old roommate. Keeley laughed at the playful banter between the three of them.
“What’s Cashiers?” she asked nonchalantly.
Clay tossed the flex rod to Keeley, starting to hammer in the stakes instead. “Cashiers, North Carolina and it wasn’t as funny as they make it out to be.”
“Yes it was,” Tuck and Sara said in unison.
Keeley grinned, wanting to hear the story more than ever now. She didn’t have to worry though, Tuck was more than ready to jump on the chance to embarrass Clay. “We’d been gone all day, did the Yellow Mountain Trial that day. Ten miles and a few mishaps later we got back to camp, dog tired.”
Keeley glanced over at Clay, groaning slightly, but there was the ghost of a smile on his lips. Still in his wheelchair, he was bent over at the waist, hammering stakes to secure the tent into the ground. She tried to imagine him out of the chair, walking, hiking—and wondered briefly how tall he was. She saw him trudging through the elements, carrying gear on his back; in hiking boots, dirty and sweating from a ten mile trek through the mountains. The vision made her feel a little bubbly and warm inside.
As Tuck continued the story she realized he was as good a story teller as Clay. His gestures and expressions told the story almost as much as his words. “After a quick dinner we all turned in early for the night. Now, I swear I’d just shut my eyes when all of a sudden someone started screaming bloody murder—”
“That wasn’t me,” Clay interjected dryly.
“Brooke was a little overdramatic,” Sara explained quietly, but sarcasm was dripping from her voice. Keeley noticed the smile on Clay’s face disappeared at the mention of Brooke’s name. She felt a pang and wanted to give him a hug; instead she listened as Tuck went on.
“You’d have thought an animal was killing them or something. As it turned out, their tent had completely collapsed. Those rods you have in your hand,” he nodded at Keeley. “They were poking out the top and a few of the stakes had worked their way out of the ground, because somebody didn’t hammer them in good,” he paused and looked pointedly at Clay, who was furiously banging at the stake he was on. Tuck laughed.
“The tent was a tangled mess.”
“He’s the dramatic one,” Clay said as Keeley started laughing. She could all too easily imagine the scene in her head. Clay grinned, taking the teasing like a man. He shook the hammer towards Tuck. “I see how it is, ganging on Clay day huh? Well you just wait Spencer; I’ll come up with some stories later that blow those out of the water.”
“Doubt it,” Tuck shot back, grinning. “Besides,” he walked over to where Sara was standing and grabbed her affectionately around the waist. Kissing her sweetly, he said, “Sara’s heard all the stories about me.”
Clay rolled his eyes, but Keeley noticed he was grinning good-naturedly. She finished setting up the tent on her own, much to Clay’s dislike. She heard Tuck announced a thirty minute warning before they need to head out.
“Okay,” Clay said, pointing towards the bike Keeley was going to use. “Time for your crash course in mountain biking.”
He patiently went over with her how and when to shift gears, the correct position her body should be in, and kindly informing her to go change out of her jeans. “And don’t feel like you have to keep up with Sara and Tuck. They’re advanced riders; Sara was on the cycling team in college.”
Keeley blanched, feeling inferior in more than one way. “What about keeping up with you?” she asked nervously.
Clay grinned. “I’ll be ahead of everyone, so that won’t be a problem.” Keeley felt the color drain from her face. He laughed at her expression. “I’ll be right behind you the whole time.”
She smiled nervously back. There was more to this thing just pedaling and she could see all too clearly a vision of her tumbling over the side of the mountain. Calm down, Keels, she told herself. Clay’s obviously got confidence in you, why can’t you have it?
All too soon the thirty minutes was up. Keeley hurriedly changed into some windbreaker style pants and a tank top and came back out to see Clay lining up for the transfer onto his handcycle.
He lifted both legs off his footplate and placed one over and across the seat of the handcycle letting it rest on an indented platform that looked like it was made for his leg. The other leg he propped on a matching little platform on the other side of the bike. As soon as he moved his hand though, his leg sort of fell.
Clay rolled his eyes as Tuck quietly snickered. “Shut up.”
He grabbed his leg again, by the knee this time and positioned it differently. This time it cooperated. Then he grabbed the edge of the seat that said in red bold writing “One-Off” and propelled himself smoothly over. Clay positioned his legs and placed a Velcro strap over them to keep them in place. The end result was him on the seat with his legs sort of under and out from him, spread-eagle like.
“That looks…not comfortable,” Keeley said apprehensively as Clay shifted himself a little bit.
“It is a little awkward.” He nodded and grinned crookedly up at her. “Luckily enough though, I can’t actually feel how awkward.”
Clay was making light of it, but Keeley felt embarrassed nonetheless at how she’d walked into that faux pas yet again. She glanced skyward and wondered briefly, Am I ever going to stop embarrassing myself like that?
Sara and Tuck climbed quickly on their bikes. Before Keeley could figure out how to get the kickstand up on hers, Clay stopped her. “Keeley,” he said quietly. “Would you mind sticking my chair in the tent? Sure would hate for that to be gone when we got back.”
She nodded and quickly acquiesced; surprised by how light the chair was when she actually picked it up, and completely understanding the request. She be nervous leaving her only means of locomotion out in the open like that too. Hell, she got nervous parking her crappy Volkswagen in a sketchy parking lot.
Keeley placed it inside the tent and quickly walked back to where the group was waiting. She watched Clay sitting on the handcycle, comfortable and happy laughing with his friends, in what seemed like his element. She realized that being outdoors had changed his already charming and endearing demeanor to downright jolly; Keeley felt like she was getting a bonus insight into a side of Clay Whitlow that she had suspected, but hadn’t really known existed. And she realized she was starting to admire and like it more and more.
She got back to her bike and plopped to the ground, nervously fiddling with the kickstand again. Clay quietly wheeled his handcycle closer to where she was. She started as he reached around her, his large hands deftly pressing the hidden release she was looking for. Keeley smiled thankfully at him and let go of the bike.
Clay grabbed it quickly and up righted it before it fell on top of her, chuckling to himself. She smiled sheepishly. “Whoops.”
He leaned forward to kiss her, awkwardly still holding the bike. A quick peck, but still enough to make Keeley slightly breathless and long for more. Then he patted her back and grinned crookedly. “This is going to be fun, isn’t it?”
Keeley smiled back and nodded, realizing with a jolt that there were some things about Clay Whitlow that she might actually be starting to fall in love with.