7. The Patriots Ch. 10-12byinspirixis1©
He had been hoping it was just nerves and excitement, but as soon as Micah woke up he knew it wasn't. He'd been poisoned with gluten. His gut twisted and burned and screamed at him in anger. He got up at 4 am and sat on the toilet for two and a half hours. When his roommate Danilo finally got up he told him to go use someone else's bathroom. He was lucky that Danilo was so understanding.
He went to Ellia's room at the time he usually collected his breakfast, even though he knew he wouldn't eat anything all day.
Her smile quickly faded when she saw him. "What's wrong?"
"I must have eaten something with gluten in it by accident yesterday." He didn't want to accuse her of poisoning him even though that was the most likely explanation.
"Did you eat anything other than what I gave you?"
He shook his head.
She looked crest-fallen. Her brow creased and her head tilted to the side. "I can't see how that could have happened. I'm always so careful."
"It's not your fault," he assured her.
"But if you didn't eat anything else it must be my fault. How can I prevent it from happening again if I don't know what went wrong?"
It was a good question, but it was one that there was no answer to. This happened sometimes. He would mysteriously have a reaction even though he was pretty sure he hadn't eaten anything bad.
He thought about it all day. Had he eaten something different yesterday? Was there something that could have been contaminated?
He was lucky in that it was a flat stage so he could sit in the middle of the peloton and concentrate on just making it through the day without shitting his pants.
He lost the yellow jersey, but he wasn't expecting to keep it so he didn't really care. For a minute he thought he might be spared the embarrassment of having to go up to the podium, but then he got word that he would be awarded the white jersey for being the fastest rookie.
He wasn't excited. He didn't want to stand in front of the crowd and have to kiss the girls cheeks. There was something that just felt so weird about it to him.
And then it struck him. He hadn't eaten something different, but he had done something different. He had been kissing Ellia, and Ellia wore makeup. Not as much makeup as the girls on the stage, but every day she went to work her lips were shiny and her face was all the same color. Maybe her makeup had gluten in it.
When he asked her about it at dinner that night her mouth fell open.
"I didn't even think of that. I'll write to the company and ask."
The next day he was starting to feel a bit better. When he went to get his breakfast she wasn't wearing makeup and he kissed her again. She was so much more beautiful when she didn't cover herself up with makeup anyway. She had the kind of skin that tans golden but she still had a spattering of faint freckles over her nose and cheeks that were youthful and cute.
God he loved kissing Ellia. He hadn't been joking when he'd told her that he was addicted to it, but to be honest he was more addicted to just spending time with her. He loved how she made him feel, so happy and lighthearted, as if nothing in the world could hurt him while she was there.
He needed that feeling more and more as the tour wore on. His relationships within the other riders were strained at best. Andrea, the team leader seemed to be unable to close the 16 second gap that Micah had opened on him during the prologue and everyone seemed to blame him.
It's not as if Micah was trying to beat him. He did exactly what Fabian told him to do every day. He didn't get involved in break-aways and he obligingly played mule for the rest of the riders. Every day that they were on the flats he sat in the peloton, waited for orders, and carried them out as quickly and efficiently as he could.
The stress within the team wasn't the only thing bothering him though. It seemed his participation had sparked interest in the Tour from black immigrant population in France and other European countries. This in itself wouldn't be a bad thing except that they tended to come in large groups and overrun traditional celebrations. They brought their loud obnoxious rap music and their angry confrontational manner and they cheered openly and loudly and only for Micah.
He didn't know what to do about it, or if there was even anything he could do about it, so he just tried to ignore the situation.
When they got to the mountain stages it only got worse. The necessity for the different subcultures in the crowd to be close to one another seemed to turn the resentment up a notch. The more traditional white fans started to fight back. There was a roadside brawl that happened right as a cameraman was passing who stopped to film the violent encounter. Fists flew and there was yelling and screaming and then someone produced a knife and there was blood and the police and an ambulance came.
The young African immigrants seemed to think he was some sort of leader for them. They printed photographs of him on T-shirts and banners and they chanted for him as he rode past.
He wanted no part of it, but what could he do?
To make a bad situation worse Andrea wasn't gaining on him in the mountains, he was loosing ground and his teammates became colder and more distant. Even Danilo, who had always been nice to him, didn't want to talk to him anymore.
The white fans started to turn against him. Even though he'd never even been to Africa he had somehow become the poster-boy for everything that didn't work about African immigration into Europe.
People spat at him as he rode past. People liked to yell at him, "Go back to the basketball court nigger."
He wasn't even good at basketball. He sucked at ball sports.
Micah felt lonely and anxious any time that he wasn't with Ellia. Even talking on the phone to his family stressed him out now. They could see what was happening on the Tour from the TV footage. His mom was worried. His brothers and Lucas wanted him to drop out.
"Just come home and train with us for the last couple of weeks before the Olympics," they urged.
The only person at home he actually enjoyed talking to was his niece Adie. His sister Grace heavily censored the TV that she let her kids watch so all his six-year-old niece knew was that he was in Europe riding his bike in a big race.
He took to calling Grace after dinner to talk to Adie, who was on summer vacation from first grade. He asked her what she was doing that day and what her mommy was making her for lunch. He asked her what games she was playing with her best friend Madeline and her little sister Jasmine and if her baby brother Alexander could do anything cool yet.
Adie was so sweet and innocent. The worst thing she was dealing with in her life was having to share her toys. It calmed him that her world was still safe and predictable. It reassured him to hear her simple words in her little girl voice.
Ellia let him lie on her bed while he talked to Adie and after he had hung up she would come and sit with him and wrap her arms around him and hold him close to her.
"Do you think I should pull out?" He asked.
"No. Micah you're doing so well. Most people don't even make it through their first Tour de France, you're ranked in the top ten."
"But I feel like I'm inciting a civil war. Someone got stabbed. Someone got stabbed because of me."
"No. Think about it. All you're doing is riding a bike in a race that you have earned the right to participate in."
Ellia kissed his forehead and hugged him to her chest and made him feel safe.
So he didn't pull out. He kept on riding and he kept on getting spat on and Andrea kept on falling further behind and nobody wanted to ride near him.
It was like he was radioactive or something.
He didn't watch or read the news because he knew he was one of the lead stories. Even though he did nothing interesting and kept his mouth shut all day long, he'd be right up there beside the burning cars and smashed windows in the slums on the outskirts of Paris.
Racial tension was reaching fever pitch. People were rioting and getting injured and he was to blame.
On the rest days he would find a body of water and swim. He didn't care what it was; a pool, a canal, an alpine lake, they were all the same to him. He'd swim slowly for hours, letting the water caress his tired body and lulling his mind into that blank place where nothing matters, where he didn't even exist.
On one of the rest days in the Alps he found a lake that was only about two miles from the hotel the team was staying in. He asked one of the mechanics for a bike and rode the narrow dusty country road as close as he could get, then dismounted and walked the final hundred yards or so through the woods to the edge of the lake. He stashed the bike and his shoes, helmet and jersey behind a bush, pulled on his goggles and waded into the cold water.
He swam until he could feel his muscles shivering from the cold and then he swam just a little longer. When he got back to the shore he stood and walked carefully out of the water, minding the sharp rocks. He caught sight of movement in his peripheral vision and froze.
He scanned the trees.
"Is there someone there?" He asked.
There was silence, but he didn't want to move. It felt wrong. He stood rooted in the knee-deep water, shivering.
Finally somebody stepped out of the trees. It was a big fat white guy with a rusty red goatee.
"I'd like to talk," he said in a thick accent.
"Who are you?"
"I am just a fan of the Tour. For a long time, a fan."
"What do you want?"
He spread his hands out in a gesture that spoke of friendliness. "I just want the Tour back. We all want the Tour back. And we want our country back."
Micah's heart was beating at a million miles an hour. The man was walking towards him with his hands open in front of him, but he felt dangerous.
His skin tingled with fear.
What would Nicholas do in this situation?
His brother in law was a martial artist and when Micah was younger Nicholas had given him some classes in self-defense. Nicholas' strategy for dealing one-on-one with an unarmed individual who clearly wanted to hurt you was easy to remember – break the bones of your opponent's foot by stomping, and then run away as fast as you can. But Micah didn't have any shoes on, so even if he could somehow break this guys foot he probably couldn't outrun him through the forest.
Any ideas of getting out of the water were quickly forgotten in the next seconds. More men emerged from the trees and they weren't pretending to be friendly. Before he knew what was happening there were rocks flying at him. There were so many of them and they were coming so fast that he couldn't dodge.
He turned as quickly as he could and dove for the safety of the water. He swam under the surface for as long as his lungs could handle and when he came up for air he quickly ducked under again. He did that until he figured that he was somewhere near the middle of the lake. He was still shivering, but he didn't know if it was from cold or from fear.
He checked over his body as he tread water in the middle of the lake. His head hurt and the back of one arm hurt. He felt down over his legs. He felt a bruise on the back of one thigh and the back of his opposite calf ached and stung at the same time. He was bruised and cut up but he didn't think anything was broken.
He couldn't see the shore of the lake clearly so he didn't know if the men were still at the place where he'd left the bike or if they had spread out along the shore. He decided to try and exit the lake on the western shore. It would be a long hike through the woods back to the road, but the shadows of the trees obscured the water on the western shore, which would give him some cover.
He swam under the water, being careful to disturb the surface as little as possible when he came up to breathe to give him the best chance of making it to the shore without being spotted. He couched low to the ground until he was in the thick of the trees and then he walked barefoot through the spiky pine needles and over the jagged rocks, using the angle of the sun to guide him back to the road.
When he finally got to the road he walked on the forest side of the ditch so he could duck into the trees if he needed to.
He wondered how it had come to this. He was a law abiding US citizen. He'd never done anything bad in his life. Sure he'd done some stupid things when he was a teenager, but he'd never done anything bad. Apart from a little under-aged drinking he'd never done anything illegal, and he'd certainly never intentionally hurt anyone. And now he was an outcast. Relegated to the fringes where he feared for his life, all because his skin was the wrong color.
When he finally made it back to the hotel his body was sore and exhausted and his feet were cut up and in excruciating pain. He was covered in blood and his head throbbed where he must have been hit above his left eyebrow. He'd left his team ID with the bike and his clothes on the shore of the lake and the guard wouldn't let him in.
He begged for him to call Ellia or Guiseppe but the guard was completely unmoved, so he stood and waited and waited for someone he knew to walk past. Finally Danilo and Alessandro walked through the lobby and he called out to them. They both turned and saw him but Alessandro looked away. Danilo stopped, shock all over his face.
"Get Ellia for me," Micah called out.
A few minutes later Ellia came through the lobby, she looked around, confused and then her eyes locked on him and he could swear that he saw something break inside her. Her hand came to her mouth and despair filled her eyes.
"Micah..." Her hand reached out to him as she hurried towards him.
She argued with the guard in French, who reluctantly let him pass over the threshold into the hotel.
She took his hand and led him through the lobby to the elevator. When he turned around in the elevator he saw a trail of bloody footprints across the tile floor of the lobby.
She sat him down in the bathtub in her suite and took the showerhead from its perch and washed him gently with warm water and a washcloth.
He watched red water swirl down the drain.
She rinsed the washcloth out and wiped his face, dabbing softly over the throbbing pain above his eye.
She didn't speak. She cried quietly as she worked on him. Tears leaked out of her eyes and dribbled over her cheeks. She sniffed occasionally and bit down on her lower lip when it started to quiver.
When she was finished she dried him carefully with a hotel towel and had him lie down on her massage table holding a damp washcloth to the wound on his face. She picked up the hotel phone and spoke quietly into it in Italian. He couldn't be bothered trying to understand what she was saying, he was tired and numb and he just didn't care anymore.
She wiped her eyes and moved the upright lamp and desk chair to the foot end of the massage table and set about examining his feet.
After a few minutes there was a knock on the door and she let Alfredo, the team doctor, in. They spoke quickly in Italian as Alfredo checked over his body, lifting the washcloth to look at the wound, walking his fingers along Micah's bones to check for breaks and shining a light into his eyes.
Moments later there was another knock and Ellia let Guiseppe in.
He gasped in shock. "Micah, what happened?"
"I was stoned," he replied flatly.
Guiseppe's eyes went wide and Ellia, who had been chewing on her thumbnail, turned her face away.
"Yes. People threw rocks at me."
Guiseppe called Fabian and the police and the rest of the evening was a blur of interviews punctuated by the searing pain of getting sutures in his head and the back of his calf, antibiotic injections and Ellia extracting splinters and slivers of rock and glass from his feet.
Ellia passed food to him regularly and he stuffed it in his mouth and chewed and swallowed without thinking.
When the police and doctor had left, Guiseppe sat on the bed and shook his head. "I am sorry Micah," he said quietly. "I fear the world was not ready for you."
Micah didn't know what he was supposed to say to that. He didn't even know what was meant by it. Did that mean Guiseppe wanted to pull him off the team? Not that Micah was really on the team. Sure he wore the uniform and did what he was told but he wasn't really part of the team, he was more like a refugee out on the course.
Guiseppe left and Ellia retrieved Micah's suitcase for him from the room he was sharing with Danilo. He brushed and flossed his teeth and changed into boxer shorts and was careful not to look in the mirror.
He crawled into the bed beside her and lay in her arms with his head resting on her breast. Ellia didn't say anything. She just held him tightly and wept softly.
She was silent until the next day when he was getting ready. He put on his cycling shorts and the white jersey he was supposed to wear for being the fastest rookie, and then checked the bandages on the bottoms of his feet before carefully pulling his socks and his jogging shoes on. He would put on his cycling shoes at the last possible minute. Today was going to hurt like hell.
"You don't have to do it Micah," she said.
"You don't have to continue. You could go home and recover for a few days then put some training in at the velodrome and the pool."
He nodded. "Yeah, I could do that, but not today."
"Because I don't like quitting."
She caught his hand and her eyes searched his desperately. "Micah, I'm afraid."
Honestly, he was scared too. He was scared shitless, but he kissed her hand and said, "Ellia it'll be fine. The whole thing is televised. Nobody in their right mind would try anything."
"It's not the people in their right mind I'm worried about."
Micah tried not to think about it. Danilo actually rode beside him for part of the morning and although he didn't talk to him it brought some comfort. There wasn't much room in his brain for conscious thought anyway, it was mostly consumed by the pain in his feet and aches in the rest of his body. So he just thought about the pain and it made it easier to get through the day.
He left Danilo behind on the first steep climb and steadily passed other cyclists up the side of the mountain. Nobody chased him. There were some advantages to being the Tour leper.
Ellia watched the TV coverage with mounting anxiety. She was already at the hotel that they'd be staying at that night and she should be out shopping for fresh food or setting up the massage table in her room, or something, but instead she sat glued to the television. Every time the camera cut to footage of Micah she nervously scanned the crowd around him, trying to pick out potential attackers.
Micah's stoning had been on the news all day and the commentators spoke about it briefly. She was worried that it might give people ideas, that there might be copycat attacks on the course. But nobody attacked him. It was a relatively uneventful day. There was only a minor shuffle in the standings and the lead jerseys didn't change hands.
She held her breath when he went up to the podium to accept the white jersey but nothing bad happened. Nobody rushed him or threw rocks at him.
"See, nothing to worry about," Micah said when he was finally safe inside the hotel walls that night. He said it lightly but there was no light in his eyes. His entire demeanor was flat and lifeless.
The next day at first appeared to be the same thing all over again. It was another mountain stage, but not quite as difficult as the one before it. By half way through the day the peloton was stretched out across a kilometer or more. Micah was riding with a group of twelve riders, which surprised her and made her feel a bit better. Over the past couple of stages the other cyclists didn't seem to want to ride with him, but perhaps now they'd turned a corner of acceptance. At least they would offer him a little protection from the crowd.