Emily awoke with the rising sun burning into her eyes. She had forgotten to pull the shades. She leaped out of bed and looked out the window. The sea rippled with occasional white caps as it rolled up against the long line of white sand. The beach was almost deserted, except for one jogger, and a dozen sea gulls dive-bombing a torn garbage bag.
Showered and dressed in 20 minutes, she packed her panniers and went next door for breakfast. Jack opened the door. Hilda came out of the bathroom as Emily was putting out plates for the muesli and fruit that they had bought the day before. Hilda stopped at the door, still holding a hair brush.
“Emily, how do you do that with your hair?”
Emily put her hand to the back of her head. “You mean the French braid?”
“Yes. I’ve never learned how to do that, and on windy days like this, I wish I didn’t have such a long pony tail – not a word, Jack!”
Jack laughed as he took the yoghurt out of the refrigerator. The coffeemaker gurgled happily on the counter.
“I can’t imagine riding without my hair tied up, Hilda. You really never braided yours?”
“No. I wore my hair short in the Army. I’ve tried, but the German tresses I learned as a girl don’t work. They’re still too long. You Tube gave me an idea, but I can’t do it myself. Could you teach me to braid like that?”
“Well, I can try. Have a seat.”
Emily stood behind Hilda and combed out her hair with the brush. She had Hilda put her hands behind her and feel as she wove the fine black hair into a braid, pulling it from the top. But the time they had worked down to the end, Hilda’s hair extended just over the collar of her jersey.
“You may have to let out your helmet a bit, depending on where the top fits, but it should press down easily.”
Hilda went to the mirror. “That’s great, Em. I love it. Thank you so much.” She gave the teenager a bear hug. “It’s a stretch getting back there with both arms, though.”
“You should get used to it.”
“I can understand why I usually see those braids on athletic women,” said Jack. “It looks like a yoga workout from here.”
They sat down to breakfast, which took very little time. By eight, they had cleaned up the meal. Jack and Hilda finished packing. Hilda walked back to Emily’s room for her bike. Soon, they were riding the US 30 highway past the wind farms at the north end of town, heading for Absecon on the mainland. The terrain became rolling or, rather, jerky, as they climbed and dropped over small hills, ramps, and abutments. They could not continue on the coast, because the bridge over the Mullica River was closed to bicycles. The long detour on Route 342 took them past the Swan River Wildlife Management Area and the Bass River State Park, which was certainly more scenic than the Garden State Parkway. The turn north and east also put them into the wind, which slowed them down and tested their endurance on the simulated climb. Emily hunkered down on the drops and slowly pulled ahead of them, showing that her famous hill-climbing talent was still there. She would slow before she went out of sight, just before Hilda and Jack started worrying about losing her.
After 100 km of steady headwinds, they were grateful to pull into the Cedar Creek Campground south of Toms River and set up camp. They went shopping in the Camp Store and cooked their own supper that night.
“It’s a real pleasure to have a home-cooked meal for a change,” said Jack, as he put another steak on the grill. “We can have ice cream at the café for dessert if you like.”
“I’d like that,” said Emily, with her mouth full. “Oops. Sorry.”
“That’s ok. I’m hungrier than you are, I think,” said Hilda. “Thanks again for the braiding lesson. It makes such a difference on a windy day like this.”
“You were really stroking there, Em,” said Jack.
“Not really. I just put my head down and imagined a long, slow hill with a sprint waiting at the top. I was going a lot slower than race speed.”
“Just so you don’t bust a gut while you’re still recovering,” said Emily. “You had us worried there. If I hadn’t been watching the speed on my bike computer, I would’ve been hollering for you to ease up.”
“I was watching the computer, too, Hilda. But I was also enjoying the challenge.”
“I’m glad you were,” said Jack. “Hills and headwinds are necessary evils in my world. I’d have lost you if you hadn’t slowed for us.”
“Speaking of losing you two. Could we stop at a bike store and get me a rear-view mirror like yours? It might be better for knowing when I’m getting too far ahead than turning to look.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” said Hilda. “I’m sure we’ll find one in Toms River.”
“It’s only 83 km to Atlantic Highlands, so we’ll have time to stop,” said Jack.
“Do you want to cross to New York tomorrow?” Hilda looked at Jack.
“I thought the idea was to avoid major cities,” said Emily. “Where would we spend the night if we go all the way to New York tomorrow?”
“Good point,” said Hilda. “The Gateway National Recreation Area is the last spit of the barrier reefs and islands. If we camp there, we’ll have ridden the full Eastern Shore. We can catch an early ferry and stay in Port Jefferson – or even in Connecticut depending on traffic.”
“I like that idea,” said Emily. “It feels good to get away from the built-up areas.” She waved at the wooded area where the tent campers were enjoying their suppers and visiting with each other. A den of Cub Scouts was playing two sites away, squealing and shouting with delight. “This is more fun than the casino.”
Jack pulled out his phone. Three minutes later they had a site reserved for the next night. They finished their steaks and salad, then washed the dishes at the common sinks, before walking to the café. They sat outside, eating their ice cream while the shadows lengthened. It was still warm, and the evening chorus of birds and insects had not yet started up.
“Let’s check in, Jack,” said Hilda, “There’s no power at Camp Gateway, so they should know that we might not call tomorrow night.”
“OK. I’ll call Ted. You want to call Greg or Pete?”
Emily pulled out her phone. “I’ll call home.”
They looked at each other in surprise as they ended their calls together. Jack grinned. “Who goes first?” He looked at Emily.
“Mom wants a picture of the black dress. I told her we were camping right now, but I would send her a photo from the first indoor place we stay.” She looked at Hilda.
“Pete says that Abdul and Hassan turned up at the Montréal airport again. There was a chase in the ticketing area, but they still got away. The ABP has been elevated and all local jurisdictions are looking for them now.”
“At least, that means they have not come Stateside,” said Jack. “Ted tells me that their four cronies dropped off the radar after leaving the Holland Tunnel. Best guess is somewhere on the roads between New York and Montréal. He’ll have photos of all four in the morning and send them to my phone.”
“When would they reach the border?” Emily asked.
“If they’re still in their car, they could do it in a day, but I would expect them to take two days, so they don’t attract attention and can use secondary roads.”
“Does that mean that they are already in Canada?”
“Probably not, Em. The Border Patrol and the Canadian Border Services Agency are both waiting for them. They could get near the border, but not cross it on a road. They would have to hike through the woods and pick up transportation on the other side.”
“Which would take a day or two more,” said Hilda. Jack nodded.
“So how do we find out what they did?”
“A couple of things can happen. Local law enforcement has the data on the vehicle and the four men. They’ll be looking around on their patrols. If they turn up the car, we’ll know they were trying to hoof it over the border, and the tracking teams can go after them. Someone local may have seen them, so spotting the car – wherever they left it – would tighten the search considerably.”
“The other thing would be for them to be spotted in Canada,” said Hilda.
“You said a couple of things.”
“Yes,” said Jack. “They could be waiting near the border for Abdul and Hassan to come back on foot. They longer they wait, the more likely their being discovered is, so they’ll want to keep moving.”
“Vermonters are nice folks,” said Hilda, “but four Middle Eastern men won’t go unnoticed.”
“If it’s the four guys that I think it is,” said Jack, “their English is not very good, so they speak Arabic to each other. Definite attention-getter.”
“They have it tougher than we do,” said Emily.
“Good point, Em,” said Jack, “but these guys have a support network that helps them get from one place to another unnoticed. For example, we don’t have any idea really what they are doing now, or what their plans are. They may have nothing to do with Abdul and Hassan, although they are wanted as material witnesses in the case against those two.”
“Do you think they’re looking for Hilda – or you?”
“That’s a possibility. We’ll be extra careful about our surroundings once we get to Connecticut, especially if there is no news. We’re within a day’s drive from the last place they were seen from here on.”
“We’re just lucky that they don’t know we’re on bikes, eh?”
“We can’t even be sure of that, Em,” said Hilda. “I was riding a bike when they shot at me in Aberdeen. They may have figured out that I might be on a bike again and be trying to guess where they could intercept me.”
“How would they know which way you went?”
“Asking around. Not them directly, but friends they might have in Charlottesville could’ve learned that we were going up the Eastern Shore or riding to Montréal. Didn’t you tell your friends about the tour?”
Emily paused to think. “Just Taniqua and Fran.”
“And either of them could have been discussing how cool it was or how they envied your going with me – and had someone else hear them talking about it.”
Emily looked crestfallen.
“Cheer up, Em. I didn’t make it a secret either. And your parents probably talked about us at work.”
“But we could be in real danger.”
“We have always been in real danger,” said Jack. “These men are just another danger, along with the traffic, the drunks, and the crazies. We’ll be OK if we keep our wits about us.”
“I may need to learn more moves.”
“Maybe,” said Hilda. “It’ll be dark soon. Let’s discuss what you observed on our way back to the campsite.”
Emily surprised herself by being able to recall more things than she realized at first, including several signs hidden by trees, vanity license plate numbers, and which passing trucks and cars were driven by men and which by women along the beach roads.
She went to sleep feeling better about the trip, but still a little nervous. The kind of nervous that raises awareness rather than incapacitates.
The next morning dawned as glorious as the day before, but the wind had veered to the southeast, so it was not directly in their faces. In fact, it pushed them to Toms River and did not bother them once they reached the barrier islands at Seaside Heights. They stopped at A-1 Bikes in Point Pleasant, which was just opening when they got there. Emily bought a handlebar-mounted mirror. The shop offered free air, so they left with tires pumped up and the nuts and bolts checked for tightness. Being the middle of the work week, traffic was light as they rode along the flat, white sandy beach. The towns were densely settled, but there was sea grass and pine woods in the open spaces. They picked up supplies for supper and breakfast in Monmouth Beach.
At Camp Gateway, the Park Ranger gave Jack a smart salute when Jack showed his Veterans Park Pass.
“Thank you for your service, sir.”
Jack returned the salute, and they rode to the parking area.
“I’m not sure how I feel about all that thanking yet.”
“Me neither,” said Hilda. “They seem so sincere, that I have to smile.”
“It makes them feel better, I’ll bet,” said Emily.
“You’re probably right, Em.”
At the parking area, they dismounted and pushed their bikes to the campsite.
“Not bad for camping sauvage,” said Hilda.
“What’s that?” asked Emily.
“It means rough camping. In some places out on the Gaspé you’d be lucky to get an outhouse, and there would be no other facilities.”
“We have flush toilets and running water here,” said Jack, “but that’s it.”
“Cool. I can see New York on one side and the ferry port on the other, and it’s clean and quiet here.”
Emily and Hilda set up camp while Jack walked back to the Ranger Station to buy some firewood. After dinner, they cooked marshmallows over the fire. The nearest other camping group was out of site, so Hilda drilled Emily on pulling an opponent off-balance. They used Jack as the aggressor.
“Damn! You’re a quick study, Em.” He rubbed his sore ribs and massaged his arm.
Emily looked distraught for just a second, then she brightened. “Sorry, Jack. Did I do it right?”
“Yes, you did. I keep a nurse handy for this kind of work.”
Hilda gave him a one-armed hug. “Let’s hope a few bruises are the worst I have to patch up on this trip.”
“What else have you fixed on him?” Emily asked. Hilda almost answered, then looked at Jack.
“You or me?”
“I’ll go first. I was wounded in an IED attack in Baghdad, Em.”
“Improvised explosive device. A handmade bomb, usually deployed on a road to disable our Humvees and other vehicles.”
“Was it bad?”
He gestured to Hilda to pick up the tale.
“Yes, it was bad. Jack had arrested some soldiers who had started a fight in town. I was in the ambulance behind Jack’s Humvee with the one soldier who was hurt worse than the others. Jack was thrown from the Humvee and slammed against the wall of a building. We got him into the medical Humvee and made it to the ER barely in time.”
“Her face was the last thing I saw until I woke up in the hospital in Germany.”
“What happened to the others in your Humvee?”
“Dead. The driver, my sergeant, and the four prisoners. The Humvee caught fire immediately.”
“I guess my moves are no big deal.” Emily fell silent. Jack and Hilda let her think for a while.
“Did you know each other before that?”
“Not well. I was the Provost Marshal on base, and I would see Hilda at the clinic. We met again at Walter Reed Army Hospital in DC later. I was being released on medical leave. Hilda was being processed for regular retirement. We ran into each other in the canteen and I recognized her immediately.”
“It was an incredible coincidence that we both wanted to bicycle across the country.”
“Wow. You two are living an adventure movie. Romantic and scary at the same time.”
The fire gave a great pop as it dwindled. The sun was halfway behind the trees. They put out the fire and walked to the bathroom building together. Dishes washed, bodies wiped down and teeth brushed, they trooped back to the camp site and turned in.
Emily stretched in her sleeping bag. The insects were settling down, so that her breathing was the loudest noise she heard. She thought briefly about how cool Jack and Hilda were, then feel deeply asleep.
The contest for a title for Emily & Hilda’s story is still open. Leave a comment or send email to email@example.com.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,