Racing the Ghost is about a 14-year-old boy determined to win a nighttime bike race along a haunted road.
Bio/medical topics mentioned and their links:
Physiology of cycling
Heat stress and heat related illness
RACING THE GHOST
by L. J.
Strange things have happened in Ellicott City, Maryland. There is the Lilburn House whose windows can’t be shut, the Patapsco Institute where ghost soldiers roam, and Oak Lawn library that brims with phantom food. There is also Seven Hills Road, a road bedeviled by a demon truck. In the daytime, it is a peaceful, winding two-lane road that runs through seven hills and borders the cemetery. Massive white oak trees flank the two miles of pavement, as if giants were watching over the road. At night, that quiet rural avenue turns deadly—a fact fourteen-year-old Vaygam refused to believe.
“You can’t go through with it. Those who speed through the seventh hill at midnight are chased by the ghost truck,” Augie whisper-shouted, trotting after his friend to keep up. “You might die.”
Vaygam whisper-laughed, pushing his bike through the darkness, guided by its headlight. “It’s only a story, relax. The only thing that can kill me are my parents if they find out I’m out in the middle of the night. So be quiet.”
There was no way he would let Billy G win the king-of-the-hills title another year. He had trained all summer to win that race and claim Ellicott High School’s best cafeteria table—warm in the winters and cool in the summers, and far from the stinky garbage. He could already imagine eating there with his outcast friends.
A fall wind rose, cold and crisp, turning the clouds into grimacing faces overhead. Less than a block away, Saint Paul’s steeple glowed under the weak moon, reminding them that the starting line was a few steps away. They had decided to start the race in the church parking lot, “to get some protection from the demon truck.”
“We’re almost there.” Augie’s voice creaked. “Are you sure you can beat Billy?”
Vaygam rolled his eyes as he drew a deep breath. “For the third time: yes, I’m sure.”
Why was it so hard for people to believe a skinny guy could beat the school bully at a bike race? Pedaling was all about being lean and having powerful legs. While Billy spent his entire summer in his air-conditioned basement gulping down hot-dogs and playing video games, Vaygam trained. Every morning, he rode along College Avenue/Seven Hills Road until his legs ached—from his quadricep and hamstring muscles to his glutes and calves. Every afternoon he pedaled under the shaded Grits Mill Trail until his skin couldn’t take the 90-degree heat and the humidity turned his hair into a frizzy ball. He was in better physical shape than Billy, hands down—unless his opponent had a hidden superpower and his muscles were fueled by junk food and inactivity. It’s not like he could back down now anyway.
When Vaygam and Augie arrived at the starting line, only three people were present: Billy, his acolyte Harry-the-Harrier, and Tamara Benson, the middle school class president. They stood next to a streetlamp, under which a white line had been drawn in chalk.
“Are you ready to race?” Tamara asked as she checked her watch, ready to give the go-signal at the stroke of midnight.
Vaygam mounted his bike and settled behind the chalk line. He was about to say ‘ready” when a rock came out of nowhere and broke his headlight. “Wait. I’ve no light.”
Billy and Harry-the-Harrier sneered. “Must be the demon truck.”
Tamara frowned. “This is highly irregular and will be investigated, but the race can’t be stopped.”
“But I won’t be able to see anything!” Vaygam protested.
“It’s like riding blind!” Augie added.
Stifled by thick clouds, the moon remained hidden in the sky. Aside from the lamppost’s small circle of light, the night was ominously dark. A cold wind rushed by and September leaves hissed like thousands of snakes.
“I’m sorry. I can’t change the rules,” Tamara warned. “Two minutes to go.”
Vaygam was considering giving up when his phone pinged in his pocket.
A quick glance at the glowing screen revealed messages of encouragement from his friends. The ones who had been able to break their parental curfew waited for him on Bonnie Branch Road, at the finish line.
“One minute to go.”
Without thinking twice, Vaygam reached inside his mouth, pulled an elastic from his braces, and tied his smart-phone to his bike’s handlebar. The battery was super low but it should last through the race. He turned on the flashlight and jumped back on his bike. He gave his friend the thumbs up and smiled. “Ready.”
“Ten seconds, nine, eight…”
Filling his lungs fully, Vaygam kept his eyes on the road.
“… two, one, go!”
Flying out of the parking lot, Vaygam left Billy in the dust. His cellphone light beam wasn’t strong but it was enough. It bounced off the guardrails, reminding him to stay safe in the middle of the road. He went through the first two hills quickly and was about to climb the third one when pebbles hit his face. Cold, sharp rocks pelted him as if it were hail—cutting his cheeks, clinking against his bike and helmet.
“Whoo-oo-oo-oo-oo…” a sinister voice moaned.
Wincing, Vaygam continued cycling. He knew that rocks falling from the sky had more to do with race saboteurs than with the Ghost Truck. What rattled him, though, was the sudden temperature drop and the trees’ eerie rustle. His phone light flickered, weakening. Goosebumps pricked his skin and windy whispers filled his ears.
“It’s just the cold,” he said, trying to convince himself that the unusual freezing wind had nothing to do with the urban legend. It wasn’t the first time the cold weather drained his battery.
He was reaching the fourth hill when his light went off, plunging him into total darkness. Vaygam gasped, but didn’t stop. Somehow, his legs still pushed the pedals and his hands still guided the handlebar. Straight ahead, slight right, then left, and straight again… His summer training replayed in his head. He didn’t need to see. His arms and legs remembered the road.
Trusting his instincts, Vaygam pushed harder, shivering. Only one hill and a half to go.
He was reaching the fifth hill when Billy passed him with a buzz. His bike whizzed by even though the boy’s legs weren’t moving. Billy had an electric bike!
“That’s cheating!” Vaygam shouted, struggling to keep up with a speed of over 25 miles per hour.
That’s when the revving of an engine boomed in the night and bright headlights flashed behind him. Vaygam glanced back. A vehicle had appeared out of thin air. It barreled down the road at a hundred miles an hour. It zoomed by, ignoring him, targeting Billy.
“It can’t be real.” Slipstreaming behind it, Vaygam pedaled faster. “That had to be another prank.”
When he reached the top of the last hill, the truck had vanished. All Vaygam could see were the flashlights waiting at the finish line. He rubbed his eyes with the palm of one hand and blinked all the way to the end, wondering if the truck had been real.
“Hail to the king!” his friends cheered as he crossed the finish line.
Vaygam stopped his bike and wiped his sweaty brow, confused. “Where’s Billy?”
“Probably on his way home,” one said. “He was too far behind. Must have quit in shame,” another added. “Who cares? You won.”
The next day was supposed to be a big celebration but Vaygam visited the hospital. Early that morning, a local resident had found Billy unconscious by the side of Seven Hills Road. Besides three broken ribs, Billy had many bruises. According to the local mechanic, the car that rammed into Billy was a 1946 Chevrolet AK—the same model reported in Ghost Truck sightings. Its front grille had left a deep print on Billy’s back. The police declared it a hit-and-run.
The thing was: pick-up trucks with that grille didn’t exist anymore.