Ryan and I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered. Tucked in the corner of a cul-de-sac and surrounded by private pools and booster clubs, it was easy to ignore the war my parents discussed around the dinner table.
While the not so distant conflict made demands of adults, Ryan and I had other more immediate concerns. Since I can remember, we’d meet at the bottom of the hill at the trailhead. The manicured lawns parted there and rarely seen dirt was allowed to creep onto the pavement. The canyons ran behind our houses, undeveloped land that probably belonged to someone but was allowed to remain empty as it provided creeks and running trails the affluent liked so much.
Neither of us were particularly outdoorsy, at any age a living room full of legos would have entertained me happily. But the canyons were vast and a world apart from the mundane trials of childhood.
One sneaker on the dusty ground the other on the pedal of her bike, Ryan was usually at the trail first. She never spent much time in her house. The reason for this is obvious with hindsight but I never questioned the way she’d follow me back for lunch.
The arrangement suited me fine. It suited my parents too. My parents, both engineers before I became one, had five children and didn’t mind an extra or two around. It meant that we had friends, that we were normal, that we’d do well in a few years when it became all about who you knew instead of what. Of course, that was another something I had to look back to realize. Back then, being one of five, and the middle kid at that, I was just grateful to have someone solidly in my camp. Ryan always was.
Her parents divorced when we were fourteen, a year before my family ascended into the upper class and moved out of the neighborhood. We still saw each other after that, but it was different. There was no canyon bike rides or exhausted lunches afterwards. More than that, high school brought with it the realization that at some point, we’d exist within the world around us.
When Ryan enlisted it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. My parents, now indispensable in the tactical development sector, even wrote her a letter of recommendation. Ryan was gone the next month for basic. She was sixteen.
I don’t remember the day she left, but I remember the day before. It was summer, but I had so many college prep courses it may as well not have been. Desperate for a distraction, I picked up my phone the moment the screen lit up.
Two hours later I pulled up to the trailhead. Ryan was waiting for me, her dad’s bike leaning against the wooden fence. She made a comment about my car, which was ostentatiously new, and then about the bike I pulled from the trunk, which was also new. I defended myself, my old bike was long gone in the move, even if I could have still fit on it.
The dirt paths were far from even, but we still knew them. Our teenage invincibility set a speed too reckless for chatter. It wasn’t until we reached the creek, bikes dropped unceremoniously in the dirt that we talked about basic training, college, her dad, my then-girlfriend, our weird families, each broken in their own ways. And finally, we talked about the war.
Neither of us were going to ignore it any more. It was a choice for her, a reality for me. We rode back as the sun set, less sure of the path but just as fast.
I am a thief, on so many counts. The first line was stolen from Bek, and the character of Ryan was stolen from More than 1/2 Mad. Check out them and the rest of the thieves at the Legal Theft Project.