Emily squealed with delight, as she sprinted across the sidewalk toward the man riding up to the curb cut by the entrance to Old Colonial Elementary School.
Charlie Hampstead swung his long leg over his saddle, leaned his bike against the wall, and crouched down to catch the handlebars of Emily’s bike flying into him. Emily always pedaled as fast as she could to drive into her father’s arms.
“Ooof! You’re getting too strong, Emily.” Straddling her front wheel, he squeezed the bubbly six-year old in a bear hug. “Race me home?”
“Not on the sidewalk, she won’t.” Katherine said from her position on the edge of the road. She smiled at her husband and daughter. “Maybe the last stretch to the house.” There was a bike path through the park that led past the back yard of their house.
“Okay, Mommy. Come on, Daddy!” Emily started down the sidewalk.
“Emily!” Katherine shouted. “You’re too fast. Stop. Now!” She motioned to the little girl. “If you can ride like that, it’s time to join us out here. But stay between Daddy and me, and follow the rules, like we practiced.”
The trio made its way down the bike lane to the edge of the park. They crossed the sidewalk to the bike path that led straight across the fields. Emily raced ahead, ringing her bicycle bell to warn pedestrians and dogs. The walkers knew her and waved a friendly hello as she zipped past. Charlie and Katherine greeted their neighbors as they chased the little speed demon.
“Charlie, she’s clocking 10 kilometers per hour!”
“On that heavy little one-speed?”
“Clearly, she’s her mother’s daughter,” he said as they pulled up to the back gate. “Think what she could do with gears.” Emily had already opened the gate and walked her bike into the yard. “Do you think she might be big enough for a 20-inch bike?” he asked. They locked the gate and walked their bikes to the garage.
“No. Not yet, but with this growth spurt she might be big enough by her birthday.”
As on most Friday afternoons, the van outside the garage was fueled and packed. A pair of BMC Time Machine bikes graced the roof like a fantasy crown. The family quickly stored their road bikes, gathered their rolling duffel bags and the food from the refrigerator.
“Daddy, can we take my bike, too?”
Charlie looked at Katherine. She closed the lid on the cooler and shrugged.
“Yippee!” Emily ran to the side of the garage and wheeled her bike to the back of the van. She handed it up to her father, who arched his eyebrows in surprise as he took it.
“Soon, we’ll have you hanging the bike yourself, young lady.”
Emily giggled. She opened the rear door and climbed up into the booster seat. She had her seat belt pulled out and clicked before Katherine got to the door. With a smile, her mother closed the door and got into the passenger seat. Charlie made a final check of the van, the attachments for the bikes, and the garage. Then he climbed into the van while Katherine clicked the remote control to lower the garage door.
“How far this time, Daddy?”
“Not far. Sandbridge is only 170 miles away – maybe three hours or so.”
“Okay.” Emily reached down to her stuffed Tigger on the seat and pulled the worn toy into her lap. Soon, her parents were smiling and trying not to laugh at the happy sounds of another Tigger adventure coming from the back seat. This time, Tigger was racing an unnamed bear on a single-track trail in the George Washington National Forest. The stuffed tiger almost lost when the bear fell on him, but quickly bounded up (as Tiggers are wont to do) and leaped a few logs that the heavier animal could not clear. Dashing to the bottom of the hillside, Tigger easily won by several lengths. All the animals in the Hundred-Acre Wood came out to celebrate. In his exuberance, Tigger smacked the back of Katharine’s head.
“Sorry, Mommy. Tigger got carried away.”
Charlie signaled a right turn and took the ramp to the rest area. “About time for a break. Bathroom, anyone?” While Katherine and Emily went to the ladies’ room, he stretched outside the van, passed by the men’s, then joined them in the food court.
Properly fortified, they resumed their trip. Katharine drove the second half. Charlie played charades with Emily, looking around his headrest and making faces at his delighted daughter.
One of Katherine’s colleagues at Mary Washington University had lent them her condo on the beach. She was happy to have Katherine use it in the off-season and save her a trip to check on it. They settled into the apartment, then drove to the Lidl supermarket near Dam Neck for last-minute fresh items that they did not bring.
Katherine’s phone rang between the roast salmon and au gratin potatoes, and the fruit and cheese. Their friend Scotty Rehnquist confirmed that he and Sarah would be there at six in the morning to take charge of Emily and her bike.
The next morning, the Rehnquists followed the Hampsteads on their bicycles to the Little Island parking lot, the gathering place for the race. It was a familiar routine. The two couples had been best man and maid-of-honor for their respective weddings. About the time Emily came along, Scotty and Sarah had eased out of the triathlon circuit and volunteered to tend Emily so that Katherine and Charlie could continue to compete.
Emily parked her bike by the Rehnquist van and helped set the table under the tailgate tent that served as support headquarters for the Hampsteads and their fans. Scotty held Emily up, so she could see her parents swimming across Shipps Bay.
“You’re getting heavy, Em,” he said as he let her down when Katherine appeared on the shore and ran to the transition area. “Next year, you’ll be holding me up!” Emily giggled and swat his knee.
Charlie was right behind his wife. Emily ran to the railing to watch them disappear. A few moments later, they appeared on the mount line. They were almost out of sight by the time the next contestants took off. A smooth transition often made the difference in a triathlon, and the Hampsteads could change faster than anyone.
Emily rode her bike to the mount line at the entrance to the Back Bay National Wildlife refuge. She knew that the contestants would be coming there for the run. Sarah rode with her. Scotty stayed near the transition area, in case he was needed. Katherine showed up, chased by Charlie. Scotty ran beside the road, cheering them on. Emily jumped up and down and shouted as her parents waved passing her. They were out of sight on the path for about ten minutes. Charlie had caught up, but in the last 15 meters, Katherine burst ahead to win the event. The other contestants flowed over the finish line in a great flood.
Katherine and Charlie took a moment to pick up their daughter and give her a big hug. She loved the smell of these moments and their sweat on the front of her body. They put her down and stretched until it was time for the podium ceremony.
Over drinks in the seaside condo, the Rehnquists and Hampsteads celebrated and plotted the rest of the season.
“I’m glad we left the competitive circuit when we did, ” said Sarah to Katherine. “I’d hate to be watching your butt all season.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” quipped Scotty, “but we’ve having great fun with Emily here.” He wiggled his eyebrows, which made the little girl giggle.
“How long do you think you can keep this up?” asked Sarah.
“I don’t know,” said Katherine, “but we’re thinking seriously of focusing on cycling. Maybe gravel or MTB.”
“This might be our last tri season,” said Charlie.
“I’m amazed by your swimming, Kath,” said Sarah. “Isn’t that your fastest event?”
“Yes, but I’ve always considered myself a cyclist first. I’m from Marin County, remember.”
Scotty rose to get the wine and refill their glasses. “Why don’t you let us take you to dinner? You always treat to dinner here whenever we do this.”
“It’s our thank-you,” said Charlie. “I know you’d come help us anyway, but we really appreciate your staying with Emily.”
“Besides, this way we get to control what we eat after the race.”
“And Charlie makes a mean chicken piccata. You can’t get that eating out.”
“I agree.” Scotty set the wine bottle back on the sideboard. “Here’s to another great season.”
They toasted, Emily with ginger ale, the grownups with a 2005 Riesling.
Scotty and Sarah left after dinner. Emily carried things to the kitchen while her parents did the dishes. After her bath and changing into pajamas, she sat in Charlie’s lap and read a story to Tigger.
“Heffalump,” said Charlie, when she stopped with her finger on a long word.
“Heffalump…” Emily yawned when she finished the story. She felt a happy drowsiness as her father heaved her over his shoulder and walked gently to the bedroom. Her mother caught Tigger as the toy slipped from the girl’s hands. She breathed in the smell of their faces as they kissed her good night. She was waking up in the Hundred Acre Wood before they had the light turned off.
Emily stepped into the sunshine at the front door of her school. Her new, 20-inch bike was still the smallest one locked to the rack outside. Few parents let their children ride to school, and she was the only second-grader who rode. Her parents always accompanied her, and she loved their little commuting parade each day, especially now that they let her ride in the bike lane with them instead of the sidewalk.
She unlocked her bike and stood by the stairs, looking for her father or mother. The driveway was full of SUVs and vans, most of them idling with that distinctive stench of cold engines. She straddled her bike and got ready to ride as her father and mother appeared in the street beyond the student pick-up area. She squirmed to blast toward them, but they had been quite stern about her not leaving the entrance until they got there.
Emily heard a popping sound coming from the main door, then a fire alarm on the outside of the building. Surely, they don’t want me to go into a fire, she thought. She eased her bike out to the sidewalk and waited for her parents in the grass just outside the wall between the school building and the driveway.
She heard screaming from the building, followed by more popping sounds. Some parents left their cars and ran toward the entrance. Sirens wailed from the main highway.
Scared now, Emily got off her bike and crouched up against the wall. Her mother and father both leaped the curb from the street and began pedaling towards her.
Katherine was in the lead. She flew between two cars, jumped the curb and swung off her bicycle, dropping it in the grass. She wrapped her arms around Emily and pulled her close. More popping noises from the school.
Katherine and Emily turned and looked at Charlie Hampstead as he swung off his bicycle, coasting toward them. He jerked sharply and fell to the left. His bicycle coasted forward and crashed on the sidewalk. He lay still. Very still.
“Charlie!” Katherine stood and began to move toward her husband. At that moment, police officers in combat gear converged on the entrance. Two of them grabbed her while a third picked up the stunned Emily and led them away from the entrance to the school.
Her father did not move. As the officer carried her around the corner, she saw an ambulance pull up. Then more popping noises and staccato bursts. Then quiet. The radios on the policemen mumbled something she could not understand.
The officer holding her gave her to her mother. Two of them went back around the corner. The third stayed with them.
Katherine crushed Emily in her arms and began to shake. Emily knew that her father would not get up. She sobbed into her mother’s chest, even as Katherine’s tears wet her hair.
© 2021, JT Hine