The Northern Neck

“Enough slack, you two,” Emily shouted and grinned. “Race me home!” Emily opened up on them until she was a small dot in the distance. Mark and Katherine were already drenched with sweat, but the effort was keeping them warm on a freezing day. Fortunately, it had not rained or snowed since they arrived in Lancaster, Virginia, but this was the first day of a long cold snap. 

“I don’t have any calories left from your mother’s Christmas dinner,” gasped Katherine as she dug down for reserves to keep her daughter in sight.

“Me, neither,” Mark grunted. Although a fine athlete all his life, he could never ride as fast as his wife or her teenage daughter. “That girl is keeping us trim anyway.”

By the time they rolled up the driveway of the antebellum mansion that had been Mark’s home from the time he was ten, Emily had already parked her Colnago and wiped it down.

“Did we just ride 40 miles in two hours?” Mark asked Emily, as he and Katherine pushed their bikes into the garage.

“Yeah, pretty slow, huh?” Emily winked. Katherine gave her a soft wallop up the side of the head. “Hey, Mom. You were the triathlete, remember?”

“Not any more. Chasing you is workout enough.”

“You should go out for seniors racing or something. I remember when you used to compete. You were awesome.”

“I was never as fast as you are now, Emily.” Katherine looked at them and sighed. “Besides, that was a different lifetime.” Mark took her hand and squeezed it. He knew that even after five years, there were times when his wife felt like a new widow. They had met three years ago in Kansas, and he never felt so valuable as a person as when he was supporting her as she recovered from the loss of Emily’s father. Katherine smiled at him and leaned her head on his shoulder as they walked to the main house from the garage.

They paused inside the front door to remove their cleated bicycle shoes.

“Y’all are back earlier than I expected.” Mark’s mother called out from the kitchen. “Supper won’t be ready for another couple of hours.”

“That’s OK, Mom,” said Mark. “We need to cool down, shower and change.”

“Don’t tell me you were trying to keep up with Emily.”

“Well, she held back for us, but I think Katherine and I both rode a personal best today.” They paused at the kitchen door. Dorothy Dempsey was poring over a half-dozen cookbooks. He gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“Mrs. Demp– I mean Dorothy,” said Katherine. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“She’s a pretty awesome cook, Gramma, and I could help, too, you know.”

“Sure. But let me figure out what to have. With a team of sous-chefs, I could get carried away. Y’all go upstairs, clean up, and come back later.”

Emily had liked her Gramma D from the first time she met her, which was at Mark and Katherine’s wedding. Mark’s parents had come out to Kansas a few other times, which had helped both Emily and Katherine adapt to their new life with Mark. They felt very much like a family now.

“What do you think she’ll do after that feast at Christmas?” Katherine said, as she and Mark were dressing after their shower. Emily had a post-ride routine of stretches, so she was in the shower now.

“I can’t imagine, but Mom just loves cooking, so this gives her an excuse to pull out the stops.”

“I won’t need to eat again until final exams next Spring.”

“You’ll burn it off if we go riding with Emily as much as I would like.”

“We can’t, Mark. She on a different level completely. We’d just stunt her training. I know she has enjoyed riding with us since we got to Virginia, but we can’t ride as hard as she needs to.”

“Point taken, but you are a serious challenge for me. Let’s you and I ride together and let her ride ahead. We’ve covered all the good routes around the Northern Neck, so she knows her way around.”

“The visibility on some of these roads is terrible.” Katherine looked worried.

“I know, honey, but she’s a better rider than we are, and she knows how to handle traffic really well. If something were to happen, we’d be on the scene almost right away.” He smiled. “Let’s just agree in advance which route she’ll take. That should allow her to ride, and for us to show up if something happens.” He hugged her gently as she buried her face in his chest.

“I’m being a nervous Nellie again. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, and your concern is well-placed. The important thing is to have a plan and be ready to be there to help her.”

Katherine straightened up and checked herself in the mirror. She took a brush to her hair and pulled it into a pony tail.

“Where did you say your father was today?”

“He’s in DC for a meeting of the Military Officers’ Association. He should be back for supper.”

Retired General James Dempsey did return as expected, about a half-hour before dinner. Dorothy kicked Mark out of the kitchen, so he could chat with his father. She kissed her husband and ordered a glass of white wine for herself and her dessert chef. Katherine was whipping cream and watching the shortcake baking in the oven, while Emily was chopping vegetables and greens for a salad. The conversation was light-hearted and relaxed.

In spite of all the cookbooks earlier, dinner was simple: coq au vin, with braised brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, followed by cheese, fruit and strawberry shortcake. Mark’s father uncorked a bottle of Malbec from Cahors, which he had brought back from his last tour on active duty.

“Have you heard back from that real estate agent in Charlottesville?” he asked, as they each took selections from the cheese plate.

“She called this morning, Dad. She wants to show us three places to rent, so we can settle quickly. We may have to wait until the spring turnover to have a good selection of places to buy.”

“Not a bad plan. I’m sure the agent wants the sale, too.”

“Probably, but no one is making promises at this point.”

“Where are the places she proposes?”

“They’re all in the City of Charlottesville limits, so Emily can go to Charlottesville High School. Two in the Greenbrier neighbourhood and one off Jefferson Park Avenue.”

“Good for you. She’ll graduate from one of the best public high schools in the State.” He looked at Emily and smiled. “You anxious to get started?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “School starts next week, so it will be a little crazy at first.”

“Well, your stepfather is an old hand at sudden moves to faraway places, even if he never talks about it. You’ll all do fine.”

The next day was their last ride before packing the car up for the final trip to Charlottesville.

As planned, Emily rode out ahead along the back roads south of Lancaster to Kilmarnock, around that town to White Stone and the Rappahannock River, then back up to Irvington Road north past Kilmarnock again, turning back to Lancaster after she passed Mount Olive. She sucked in the smell of the thick pine forests and the cold fresh air, delighting on the curves and the ravines that gave her mini-intervals. On Route 200 north of Kilmarnock, she overtook a peloton of riders on a training ride. She joined them for about a mile, but they were going too slow, so she sped up and lost them before turning west at Mount Olive.

As planned, Katherine and Mark set out with her and enjoyed riding as a couple. They kept her in sight until they all warmed up, and Emily disappeared on Harris Road south of Kilmarnock. They maintained a steady 20 mph, but they had no idea how far behind Emily they were for the next hour.

“Omigod,” shouted Katherine as they came out of the pines on Mount Olive Road, surrounded by fallow fields. “Is that Emily up there?” She stood on the pedals and began sprinting toward the small figure on the side of the road about a half-mile ahead.

Mark tried to keep up, but there was no catching the panicked mother.

Emily had her bike upside down and was sliding the rear wheel into the hangers. She looked up and smiled.

“Hi, Mom! Got a flat.” She looked at them as they dismounted with worried expressions on both their faces. “You must not have been very far behind me.”

“Are you OK?” asked her mother.

“Of course, Mom. It’s just a flat. I can fix those on the road now, you know.”

Mark relaxed immediately. Katherine had to take a couple of deep breaths, but she, too, settled down. Emily centered the wheel, tightened the quick-release levers and reached for the frame pump. She pumped up the tire, then looked at Mark.

“Want to put some muscle on it since you’re here?”

“Sure.” Mark pumped it up until Emily deemed that the tire was tight enough.

“Thanks. See you at the house?”

They both nodded. Emily was on her bike and halfway out of sight by the time they picked up their bikes and mounted.

“Last year, she’d have been on the side of the road crying,” Mark said. “She’s come a long way, darling.”

“I know. It still scares me sometimes.”

With the unscheduled rest stop, they lost their rhythm for the ride and arrived a half-hour behind their daughter.

====

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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