Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Bicycle in the Tree

Dear Ellie,

I have to admit this story that I wrote you doesn't have a moral or some lesson to be learned.  It's just a good old fashioned "ghost story..." but with elements of truth.

I've always had a special affection for "ghost stories," even though I don't believe in those kinds of supernatural things.  I especially like those that are tied to places that are important in my life.  Your grandfather, for instance, used to tell your aunt, uncle, and I a story about a colossal, native Floridian primate called "the Skunk Ape" that was said to roam through the palmettos late at night.  Despite his size, he was hard to see in the darkness... but smell him, you could.  So of course, whenever I was walking around late at night, every odd odor was, perhaps, the skunk ape.  As I grew older, I knew that the Skunk Ape wasn't real, but I still imagined him roaming through the Florida flatwoods late a night during my walks.  It had imprinted itself, and enriched, the place that was my childhood's home.  And so I've decided to write you a story now about the place that I grew up so that whenever you are at Grandma and Grandpa Smith's house, there will be a rich mythology behind it.  The story is called: The Bicycle in the Tree.  


Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

When I was just five years old, the most peculiar thing happened.  It occurred on one of the nights that your aunt, uncle, and I were all camping atop our tree house in the backyard.  It was dark in the neighborhood, back then.  To call it a neighborhood wouldn’t even be accurate.  It was more like a few scattered houses, swallowed by dense woods. 

It was a cold night with a harsh wind that caused the trees to sway and groan.  The moonlight spilled through the limbs at odd angles and cast dancing shadows through the underbrush.  The three of us lay in our sleeping bags, reading books by flashlight. 

Near midnight, we heard something strange.  Bicycle spokes, creaking.  I sat up, turned off my flashlight, and peered through the darkness.  A bicyclist was pedaling furiously through our yard toward Hawkview Circle.  Each time he glanced over his shoulder, he pedaled ever harder.  The three of us squinted in the pale moonlight to see what he was fleeing from, but saw only the stillness of night.

When he’d passed through our yard and crossed the neighbor's as well, he peeled on to the road and disappeared.  We thought the incident was over, until there rose a shout.  Then a crash.  Then a wail from afar that echoed through the trees.  To this day, it curdles my blood just to think about it.  The three of us tumbled from the tree house and fled across the yard to the safety of our house.  Your grandmother and grandfather wrote off our claims as tall tales.  That is, until the coming of dawn would prove them wrong.              

In the limbs of a tree, down the road on Hawkview Circle, a bicycle had appeared.  There was no explanation.  No purpose.  And the rider had gone missing. 

The bike belonged to a boy named Adrian Miller.  He lived down the street on Hawkview Circle, only a house down from where the bike now dangled.  I never saw the boy very often, only occasionally at dusk as he rode his bike.  He always wore flannel shirts and striped tennis shoes.

The same day that the bike appeared in the tree, your Grandmother and Grandfather told us solemnly that no one could find Adrian Miller.  And that we probably shouldn’t stay in the tree house by ourselves anymore, at least not for awhile.

As time went on, neither Adrian nor the perpetrators of his disappearance ever surfaced.  Sometimes, as dusk turned to deeper twilight and the wind whistled through the trees, I’d look down the road and think, perhaps for just a moment, that I saw Adrian Miller riding on his bicycle in his flannel shirt like I had once before.  I’d always flee to the safety of our house before I could ever confirm it.

Normally, crimes like the one perpetrated on Adrian would slip from a community’s conscience, but not for us.  There were always things, through the years, to spur our imaginations once again.  To ponder his fate.  Like the time I was wandering through the woods with my friends Derek and Chris and we came across an old, soiled flannel shirt, only to have it disappear when we returned with our parents.  Or the time that we saw two striped tennis shoes, their laces tied together and dangling from a high limb.  And then, of course, there was the bicycle in the tree.  The ultimate monument to Adrian’s disappearance. 

There were moments, too, when we wondered whether Adrian had ever really left us, after all.

My friend Geoff lived in the house across from the bicycle in the tree.  One time, while I was sleeping over, we were taking the trash down his long winding driveway at night when we saw something.  Something more than just the tree and the bicycle.  A shadowy guise, in the shape of a young man, dangling limply from the bike, his feet mangled in the spokes.  It fluttered in the wind, as though made of paper or cloth.  We ran back inside before we could get a closer glimpse. 

Later that night, we couldn’t fall asleep or even close our eyes.  Not after what we’d seen.
At two o’clock in the morning, we peeked through the blinds toward the tree.  The bicycle was gone.  I squinted, thinking that maybe the shadows in the night played tricks with my senses, but then I saw a glint in the distance.  Down the road came a bicycle, pedals pumping, handlebars swerving… but there was no rider.  It turned suddenly, and rolled through the ditch and up into the lawn toward the window.  We shut the blinds and cowered beneath a pile of pillows.  When morning came, the bicycle had returned to its place in the limbs, as though it had never left.         

Eventually, I left for college and it was a long time before I saw the bicycle in the tree again.  I even began to wonder whether the things I saw were just inventions of my youthful imagination.  Whenever I came home from school, I took to walking the street at night, to the darkest places in the neighborhood where the stars shone brightest. 

One such night was strangely familiar.  It was a cold night with a harsh wind that caused the trees to sway and groan.  The moonlight spilled through the limbs at odd angles and cast dancing shadows through the underbrush.  And around midnight, I heard something.  It sounded like bicycle spokes, creaking.  I peered through the darkness.  Down the road in the moonlight I saw… the bicycle.  It was old and rusty, now.  Wheels deflated and warped.  Chain detached.  But still, it was pedaling toward me.  Swerving.  And riderless. 

I began to run.  Faster than I ever had before.  I was a long way from home.  I had a good lead on the bicycle and it wasn’t moving very quickly, but every time I looked over my shoulder it had come impossibly closer.  The creaking of the spokes grew louder.  I could hear the broken chain, dragging along the asphalt.  At one point, I stopped looking back for fear that I would spill what was left of my courage.  For fear I might see Adrian.  Spectral.  Mangled.  Decomposed.  Still, I knew that the bicycle was coming closer.

Soon, I could feel the tires clipping at my heels.  And then it hit me.  I knew, because I heard a wail that curdled my blood.  Adrian’s wail, echoing and so loud that it felt like it was inside my very head.  A gust of wind blew me to the ground.  And then there was silence.  When I looked up, all I saw was a plume of dust in the wind.  The bicycle was gone.  I got up and didn’t stop running until I was home. 

I sat by the window all night, watching the road, but I didn’t see the bicycle again.  I thought perhaps that this was the end.  That I might go out to the tree tomorrow morning and find that, at last, the bicycle was no longer in the limbs.  But when I arrived, there it was, still dangling.  That’s when I sat beneath the tree and wondered.            

I wondered why the bicycle was never taken down.  Why it had never fallen.  Even now, as I write this story at 30 years old, its still there, decades later.  Adrian’s parents never removed it.  Neither did any of the neighbors.  Not even nature itself.  Scores of hurricanes and harsh winter storms have blown through the area and while entire houses were blown over, not even the strongest wind gusts could shake the bike from its perch. 

A deep, unsettling feeling has gripped me over the years whenever I pass by the bicycle in the tree.  As I’ve watched it decompose and rust.  As the plastic seat warps and the tires turned withered and flaccid like the skin of a flayed snake.  Even the tree itself grew craggy.  The branch upon which the bicycle hangs died long, long ago, as though infected by its legacy.  The bike is wrapped to the decrepit branch, like an old rusty ring on a skeletal finger.

I wonder whether others can sense its sinister aura, too.  Whether they can sense the taint inside of it.  Maybe that’s why they never touch it.  I can’t shake the feeling that the bicycle might be some kind of tomb.  Some kind of prison to the thing or things that made Adrian disappear so long ago.  Is he trapped in there, with them?  Fighting to contain them?  Were anyone to touch the bicycle--- were it ever to fall--- would it release the things within?  Would they scour the roads at night or even ooze in through windows and beneath the cracks of doors, looking for new victims?       

It’s impossible to say, but until that time comes, whenever I walk the streets in the evening or glance out to the pallid night, I listen for the sounds of creaking spokes.  And the sight of a riderless bike.  

The bicycle in the tree, still dangling


  1. Wow! That is a very compelling and engaging story. A dangling bicycle in a tree is not something we see very often. There's definitely a lot of explanations you will run to with regard to that. What that situation tells us though, is that the environment we live and grow up in and how we maintain it is what makes it vital to our lives.

    Mike Gurung @ Bay Area Tree Specialists

  2. It certainly is, Mike. Just make sure that if you are ever servicing trees over here in Florida, you don't pluck any bikes from the trees :-)