It began one morning two weeks before summer vacation. The full moon shone through Vivienne’s window and woke her up. She tossed and turned, trying to get back to sleep, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her father who was stationed overseas in the Army. She looked at the clock on her desk. She had one hour to ride her new bicycle. Her father had surprised her. She had just turned twelve, and then her father left.
Vivienne reached for the clock and turned off the alarm. She glanced at the pile of books she forgot to put in her backpack after finishing her homework. She would do that chore when she got back. Her bicycle was waiting for her.
She peeked through the window. It was dark, maybe too dark to ride her bike, but the moon was full. Besides, she would be back home and in her room before her mother or Leroy woke up. She would go the distance, up and down the steep hills. Solo. She knew Pearl Street like the back of her hand. It would be her test case.
Below her bedroom window, she saw her new 10-speed waiting for her. Lime-green aluminum frame, dropped handlebars with black handlebar tape, toe clips, and a water bottle holder. One of her brother’s friends who worked at the local bicycle shop had shown her how to take care of it, doing simple things like wiping down the frame after every ride, checking the chain, and changing the tire. It took her a few times to get the tire-change right, but with Leroy’s help, she was now a whiz at it.
Vivienne jumped out of bed, changed into a sweatshirt and sweatpants, tip-toed past Leroy’s room, walked quietly down the stairs past her mother’s room, stepped through the kitchen, and opened the door to the backyard where she had left her bike the night before. She didn’t care if she would get in trouble. She had to do this, to prove she wasn’t afraid, and besides, this ride was for her father. He had given her the perfect gift for her twelfth birthday.
She had named her bike Sandstorm if for no other reason than her father was stationed where sandstorms were a natural occurrence. In his letters, he described them like nothing she would ever experience. “They are like mountains of blinding sand and dust blowing fifty miles an hour across the base,” he wrote, “and you can’t see anything around you for hours. Really bad ones last for days. The sky turns an eerie color of yellow and orange, and sometimes you can’t see the sky at all. Breathing is especially difficult, almost like you have asthma. Your throat is sore and you are forced to wear goggles and masks to protect your eyes and nose from tiny particles of sand and dust flying around. For these reasons,” her father continued, “we are ordered to stay inside whenever a sandstorm hits, except if we have to go on patrol, and sometimes not even then. The sandstorm damages some equipment so badly that it is inoperable and takes days to repair, if it can be repaired at all. And it isn’t like it is perfect inside either, because the sand and dust seep through windowsills and doors and get into the food and sleeping quarters.” Her father didn’t write often about sandstorms, but when he did, he made it seem so real she felt like she was living through one herself. She would put up with a sandstorm, she decided, if it meant she could be closer to him. Then she wouldn’t have to miss him so much.
Vivienne unlocked her bike and checked to make sure the front LED and rear strobe lights worked properly. Then she mapped in her head how far she could ride in fifty minutes. Living on the edge of the city limits, she wouldn’t cross any major boulevards, so she could ride three miles south on Pearl Street—a straight, mostly flat road with three minor crossings and a couple of stop signs—circle back, and ride six miles north. She would lose time climbing the hills on North Pearl Street, but she would make up the lost time on the downhill back to her house. If she got behind, she would pretend she was racing Leroy. Not that she ever won, but still… She checked her watch: 5:05 a.m., just enough time to get back by 6 a.m. She would be dressed for school and sitting at her desk before her mother and Leroy woke up.
Vivienne strapped on her helmet, fastened the buckle, slipped her biking shoes in the toe clips and was off. No one was out in the neighborhood. It was a warm morning for this time of year, in the high sixties, and her sweatshirt warned off any chill in the air. School would be over in two weeks, and she could feel the freedom that summertime brought, when she could go to the library and choose her own books, help her mother plant flowers in the garden, and tag along with Leroy when he invited her to go swimming in the lake.
She felt a different kind of freedom, now, one that would give her a new feeling about herself, who she wanted to be. Would her father be proud of her? Or would he be angry and scold her? She knew it wasn’t perfectly safe, but then a lot of things in life aren’t perfectly safe. A mild breeze blew her long hair under her helmet, a breeze like the summer to come and the spring left behind.
Hardly any time seemed to pass when she arrived at the southern three-mile mark. She circled around and headed north. As she approached her house, she saw a light in her mother’s bedroom. Was her mother awake? Was she always awake at this hour? Will she go to my room and see that I’m not there and call the police? Vivienne made a split-second decision to ride the three miles north and finish the twelve-mile round trip. Passing her house, she saw the light had been turned off, but this didn’t mean her mother wasn’t up and about. What if she was in the bathroom to get dressed for work? Did she have an early appointment? Maybe she was in the kitchen drinking her coffee and reading the newspaper. Vivienne couldn’t tell because the kitchen was in the back of the house. Her mind was going a mile a minute, preparing herself for what would come if her mother found out she had ridden her bike solo in the dark, having been warned of the dangers lurking from who knows what. It wasn’t safe for a girl to be out alone so early in the morning. Period.
Vivienne rode North up the long hill heading toward the suburbs, her heart pounding, still fixated on the light in her mother’s room. The dawn appeared on the horizon, a rosy red dawn her mother would call it, streaks of pink smearing the sky. When she got to the top of the hill—Leroy had taught her how to breathe without getting too winded—she circled back just in time to see Eddie Sue’s dad pull into his garage. Vivienne had forgotten that Mr. Howard worked the night shift at the city hospital. She slowed down as he walked straight to his front door, not stopping to smell the roses Mrs. Howard had planted. Vivienne balanced her bike until Mr. Howard disappeared inside. She looked at her watch. 5:48 a.m.
Vivienne was only minutes from her house when she felt something warm and scratchy on the back of her neck, like microscopic grains of warm sand pricking her skin. She pulled her sweatshirt up to protect her neck, but within seconds she felt something like coarse sandpaper rubbing her skin and then a burning sensation rushing through her. Sand began to encircle her like the sandstorms her father described in his letters. She had to bring order in this chaos. “C’mon Sandstorm,” she said. “We have to get back before Mom and Leroy wake up.” As fast as this disturbing phenomenon came it disappeared. She was so close to being home.
She walked her bike to the back of the house. The kitchen light was on, so she hunched below the window in case her mother was fixing breakfast. She looked upstairs. Leroy’s light was on, too. She locked her bike to the post and wiped the sand out of her eyes and ears with her sweatshirt. She took off her helmet and shook it out. She slipped out of her biking shoes and shook them too. She brushed off her clothes. She looked on the ground. There was no sand to track into the house.
Vivienne definitely had a problem. You can’t just make up a sandstorm that feels like coarse sandpaper rubbing the skin on your face and swirls around you like there is no escape, she thought. And even if she could explain the sandstorm, she couldn’t explain the absence of sand after she arrived home. She didn’t brush one speck of sand off her clothes, her neck, her hair or eyes or nose or ears.
She entered the house by the side door off the kitchen. She looked at the clock on the wall. 5:58. She had made it home with two minutes to go. As she passed her mother’s bedroom, she heard her say “honey” and then she heard “Viv.” Was she talking to her father? Her mother didn’t call anyone other than her father “honey,” and her father was the only person who called her “Viv.” It didn’t matter who called who what. She had to get up the stairs and into her bedroom before she met Leroy on his way to the shower. She climbed the stairs two at a time and heard the shower running in the bathroom. She rushed past the bathroom and opened her bedroom door. She smiled at the sight of Miles curled up on her desk, his favorite place to sleep. Miles was still Miles, but was she still Vivienne?
Vivienne got dressed for school, throwing her sweatshirt and sweatpants in a dirty laundry pile, trying not to think about the sandstorm. She was not going to second-guess herself, but she couldn’t help wondering what the sandstorm was supposed to mean. Was it a sign of something about her future? Or punishment for sneaking out of the house to go solo on her bike in the dark and not tell anyone, and then sneaking back into the house, covering everything up with a cool demeanor so no one would guess where she had been. She could hear her parents calmly telling her no twelve-year-old girl should be riding her bicycle alone in the dark, no matter what. And they would be furious at her.
She held Miles on her lap to get herself together, pretend this morning was no different from any other school morning. She had made it home without anyone seeing her. She wouldn’t tell a soul about her fifty-minute bike ride in the moonlit morning, or the special freedom she had never felt before. And the sandstorm? And who was her mother calling “honey”? Vivienne knew. It was her father. Maybe he got a leave. Maybe he was coming home. Maybe the sandstorm…
She heard a knock on the door. It was Leroy. He wanted to know if she wanted a ride to school.