The wind has been fighting the cyclists ever since they entered South Dakota. A hurricane that tore up the Gulf Coast a week ago has made its way inland and is now reduced to simply battering Olivia’s cheek, relentlessly, with every pedal stroke as she makes her way east through the Great Plains. The hurricane is also named Olivia. Hurricane Olivia made landfall fewer than a hundred miles from where cyclist Olivia grew up in rural Louisiana, forcing her mother to evacuate and forcing Olivia to call her mother to verify that she’s okay. Life is weird if you think too hard, and Olivia has had nothing but time to think during her cross-country bike ride with her friend/maybe girlfriend, Valerie. Traveling light means no technology other than their smartphones, no work, no books. The wind makes the flat road feel like a constant uphill, and the monotony of the landscape isn’t helping. It’s all corn and soybeans with the occasional sunflower field to break up the view, which would be exciting except that the sunflowers haven’t bloomed. They’re just green stalks this early in the season.
Olivia sees it before it strikes, an enormous flying beetle that the wind catapults directly at her face. Before she can react, it splats on her sunglasses and she can hardly see. And still—since in order to ride across the U.S. in the short amount of time she and Valerie have before they begin their new jobs, one cannot afford to be fazed by this sort of gore—still, she might have simply taken off her prescription glasses and squinted through the last five miles to their motel, except that apparently the monster-beetle was pregnant, and though it didn’t survive the crash, its offspring did, the burst egg sac scattering dozens of microscopic horrorcreatures to scurry across her glasses, across her cheeks, up her nose, in her eyes.
“Stopping! Stopping!” she says, but after she pulls off to the side of the empty farm road and wipes frantically at her face with her sweaty bike jersey, she realizes that Valerie’s not even behind her.
Olivia is annoyed. She’s pretty sure they’d agreed that, although Valerie likes to stop and chat up the locals or snap a bunch of photos, it has slowed them down from their very first day setting off from the Oregon coast and it really isn’t okay during these gusty Plains days. Olivia has learned during their month on the road together that going back to find Valerie isn’t worth it. As often as not, she’s turned off their route to explore something. Best just to wait.
Sure enough, twenty-three minutes later, here comes Valerie with her inefficient approach to cycling through the wind: standing and stomping down on each pedal, making her bike pitch from side to side. Her light-brown hair whips wildly out from under her helmet. How anyone could ride nineteen hundred miles in under thirty days and not develop better technique is beyond Olivia. She wants an apology—zero shade, infant beetle lodged in her tear duct, dangerously low water supply—but when Valerie comes along beside her, out of breath and grinning, she understands there’s not one coming.
“We have to turn back, Liv. It’s the most fucking gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.”
A couple things about Valerie: she’s Irish, and so every time she says “fuck”—which is often—it comes out sounding like “feck,” and every time it’s the cutest thing that Olivia’s ever heard. The other thing is that the world seems to have deemed Olivia unsuitable for a nickname, but Valerie calls her Liv. Liv!
“There is zero chance we’re going back.” Olivia yells to be heard over the wind.
“But we have to. You thought the sunflowers aren’t opened yet, but they are. They were just turned away, following the sun like us. A whole field of pure gold, Liv. All you had to do was take half a second to turn back and look.”
“The last sunflowers were at least ten miles away.”
“Only seven. I clocked it. Come on, the wind will be at our backs and we’ll be there in less than twenty minutes.”
A car passes. It gives them a wide berth, but still Olivia flinches because the constant whooshing in her ears has drowned out any warning of its approach. This area is so middle-of-nowhere that she’s maybe seen a dozen vehicles all day. Both women scoot their bikes over to hug the edge of the road. There’s no shoulder, just a few inches of weeds before the corn starts.
“Sure, twenty minutes to get there and an hour to get back. We’re so close to our motel and I’m hungry. And you don’t even know about the huge bug that divebombed me. Plus, we still have the rest of South Dakota and then we’re in Iowa. There’s no way that’s our last sunflower field.”
“Oh, come on. Leave at sunrise, go, go, go. Check-in’s not for three more hours. Why are we always in a hurry?” Valerie asks but doesn’t wait for a response, she just shoots Olivia a look of disgust and starts pedaling forward, in the correct direction. Although Olivia is the stronger rider—both because she has thicker legs and because she hadn’t skimped on their year-long training plan—she stays behind Valerie for the last few miles.
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