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Jake Evans gripped the handlebars of his BMX bike tightly and leaned into the sharp curve.
"Noooo!" he protested as his tires made it around a blind U-turn, and a dead end threatened to imprint itself on his face. He squeezed the brakes and prepared for contact as he felt himself hurled over the handlebars.
The body-jarring landing knocked the wind out of him. Dust filled his nostrils as he struggled to suck in air. He'd landed like a dead beetle, face and legs up to the clear blue sky, buttocks against a cornstalk that blockaded the path. Bits of gravel on the narrow, dirty trail pressed into his bare back.
As he lay there breathing hard, a crackling sound overhead startled him. Then something hard fell through the air and landed on his gut like a light punch. He lifted his chin and closed a hand around it. "Corn on the cob," he announced to a chickadee that had just perched itself on the stalk tops high above him. "If you have to crash a bike, at least a cornfield is softer than concrete."
He peeled the coarse husk away from the cob and examined the pale yellow corn. "Nope, not ripe. Anyway, I prefer 'em cooked and buttered."
He tossed the cob away, into the shadows of the thick forest of stalks that surrounded him. The bird twittered and flapped away.
"Hey," he called to it. "Come back and tell me how to get out of here."
Corn mazes had always intrigued Jake, and he'd been totally into it when his best buddy Peter Montpetit had suggested they sneak into this one and bike its labyrinth of paths before the site opened to the public at four o'clock
Only trouble was, mazes were about getting a person lost, and he'dbeen lost for half an hour. He sighed and spun his undamaged bike around. "Peter," he called. "I'm lost!"
Only the rasp of grasshoppers and chirp of crickets responded. That meant either Peter had long since found his way to the finish or was pretending he couldn't hear Jake to make sure he'd win their little race. The last time Peter got lost in a maze, Jake remembered, his friend had wriggled his way through a hedge to find a new corridor. Typical Peter: an impulsive, quick-thinking kind of guy. The correct way to get out of a maze, Jake figured, was to stay calm and focused.
Ten minutes later, having managed to avoid further dead ends, Jake reached the stairs that led up to the maze's viewing platform. "Yes!" he said as he did a happy nose manual.
Seven steps to the platform. Hmmm. Perfect for a skilled flatlander -- a BMXer who's into tricks that demand balance and control. He placed his feet on his pedals, stood on them, and began a warm-up bouncing while parallel to the steps. One, two, three, JUMP! Step number two was now his. One, two, three, JUMP! And so it went. Jake teetered once or twice as he attained a new step, but never faltered, fell, or needed to take his feet off the pedals.
The juice in his calves was burning as he made the last leap onto the deck.
"What took you so long, old buddy? And do you plan to pogo the steps down without casing your back tire?"
Jake grinned as he dropped his bike and punched Peter lightly in the shoulder. "Ha!" he replied. "Up here scouting? Nice to know I'm not the only one lost."
"Lost? No way. Just hanging out enjoying the view," Peter protested. "Want half an apple?" he asked, producing one from his pocket.
"Think I'm strong enough to break it in half with my bare hands?"
"Is this another one of your stupid magic tricks?" Jake had been subjected to Peter's bumbling attempts at being the next Houdini for a couple of weeks now. It was Peter's new obsession, aside from BMX biking.
Ignoring the taunt, Peter held the apple up for Jake to inspect. It was a normal apple, no cuts, no marks of any kind.
"One, two, three, voila," Peter cupped the apple between his palms, then twisted each palm an opposite way. The apple broke in two pieces, the break as clean as if a sharp knife had cut it.
"Wanna know how I did that?" Peter asked, gloating as he handed one half to Jake.
"You're not supposed to tell how you do magic tricks."
Peter shrugged. "I stuck a threaded needle under the skin by the stem, then down, then along the bottom, then back up and across, like a square. Then I pulled on the two ends of the thread. That sliced it inside without breaking the skin except for the needle holes. Cool, huh?"
"Cool," Jake allowed. "Houdini teach you that?"
"Houdini the master magician did way cooler things. But hey, I'm still a beginner. I'll get to Houdini tricks one of these days."
"Houdini wouldn't have gotten lost in this maze."
"You got that right," Peter said, straightening up and looking off into the distance. "Can you see my cabin from here?"
Jake shaded his eyes and turned slowly around. To the south of the maze were endless fields of corn, hay, cows, and chicken sheds. To the north were the shacks and rundown houses of Copperton, British Columbia-shadowed by rugged, stony hills with patches of trees and grass. They were about 300 miles northeast of Seattle, Peter's home. Between the hills and small town was a lake dotted by summer cabins.
"You mean your parents' cabin, which they're up here to sell?" Jake responded. It was kind of a mean thing to say, but Jake was worried about how Peter wasn't really facing up to that fact. Jake and Peter had grown up next door to each other and were still best of friends now, at age fifteen. That was despite Peter's airplane-pilot dad getting a high-paying job about the same time as Jake's family had fallen on hard times a few years back. Since then, Jake had gotten used to Peter having fancy vacations, expensive sports gear, and a huge allowance. And lately, Peter had switched to a private school. But Peter's carefree approach to money and his lack of sensitivity toward people with less often bugged Jake. In fact, Jake was beginning to think Peter was becoming even more of a snob as he tried to deny that his own family's situation had just taken an abrupt turn. Peter's mom and dad had both been laid off for a few months now, were struggling financially for the first time in their lives, and had decided to try and sell the property.
"Okay, my parents' cabin. But they're not really going to sell it, so don't even say that," Peter insisted.
Jake nodded, deciding not to push things. "Yeah, I see your cabin. Hey, nearly as many cabins on Copper Lake as houses in Copperton."
"Yeah, and that's good, 'cause it gives work to the locals."
"Uh-huh," Jake responded. "You mean like the $10 we just cheated this farmer out of?"
"Well, we could've waited till the maze opened and then paid to walk it, but that would've been boring. Way more fun to sneak in and bike it, hey?"
Jake shrugged. "Let's go bike the track." He meant, of course, the local BMX racetrack. They'd been at the lake for a week. Hadn't taken them long to check out almost everything in the little town, but they hadn't actually biked on the track yet.
"I've told you the locals never let us lake kids on it," Peter grumped. "We'll just have to build dirt jumps somewhere, maybe tomorrow. Ready to go home now?"
"Sounds good to me," Jake agreed. He preferred dirt jumps to racetracks anyway. Speed on racetracks was Peter's thing. Jumping wide gaps on dirt jumps was Jake's thing.
"Are you starting to get bored here already?" Peter asked Jake.
Jake hesitated, hoping it wouldn't be rude to answer that honestly. Then he grinned. "Yeah, a little. It'd be nice if there were something exciting to do besides bike around."
Peter sighed. "Something exciting. I agree. As if that's possible in Copperton." He looked down from their bridge. "So, about this maze. Looks like if we take a right at the bottom of these steps, then four lefts, two rights, and two lefts, we'll be out!"
The two bumped their bikes down the steps, peeled right, and did a high-speed chase to the maze's exit without getting lost again.
Peter won, of course. "Guess you didn't eat your Wheaties for breakfast this morning."
"Yeah? Let's hear you say that when we get some jumps built," Jake teased back as they headed toward Peter's cabin. Their route had them skirting the town, past the town dump, and up a blacktop road to the lake. Before they reached the blacktop, something
caught Jake's eye: a glint of metal at the edge of the dump. As he biked closer, it came into fuller view.
"Hey, Peter, stop for a second. Look at this," Jake turned left off the road to bike a few yards up the dump's driveway. And there he saw an old-school Norco BMX bike at the edge of the mountain of garbage. Peter braked to a stop beside him.
"Kinda old and rusty," Peter said, "but not worth tossing. Sure stinks here," he added, nose wrinkled. "Only hick towns have open dumps like this. Hmmm, someone used to race this bike. Still has a number plate. Anyway, we could take it if we put it between our bikes and each held onto a handle."
"Not a good idea," boomed a voice from somewhere in the trash. "Get lost. That's mine!"
Jake swung around to see a boy their age in camouflage trousers, filthy T-shirt, and a buzz cut. He was small and wiry, but looked tough. And his jaw was set as hard as his eyes.
"Sorry," Jake started to say, eyes shifting to the boy's hold on a big cardboard box marked "military" that he'd dug out of the trash heap.
"Like we'd know it's yours if it's leaning up against a pile of garbage," Peter called out. "Anyway, we're outta here. Come on, Jake."