Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal!
Mallory rode her bike down the sidewalk. The training wheels rattled from their loose fittings. Foam covers decorated with Disney icons protected the metal frame. White and pink streamers danced in the wind at the ends of the handlebars.
“Wah-hooeey!” Mallory shouted, adjusting her oversized helmet and dipping her head low to gain speed. She stopped when a paper cup rolled across the sidewalk in front of her. “Look at it go!” The cup got stuck in a clump of thick grass. Mallory continued on her way.
Swish! Swish! her pants rubbed together with each stride.
Pedal! pedal! her feet pushed, then released, then pushed again.
It was a chilly Saturday afternoon, but that wasn’t going to keep Mallory from riding. She loved to be outside and go on adventures (Only around the block Mommy had said). There was no summer program daycare on the weekends, which gave her extra time to practice things like pedaling, stopping at corners, looking both ways (even when she knew no one was there), putting both hands on the handlebars, keeping her back straight, and always making sure her eyes were on the road. Oh, those training wheels were definitely toast. They’d be off in a jiff.
Riding made everything feel like it was moving; the houses, the yards, the cars parked on the street—they all moved along with her like they were alive. Even the sky seemed to move. Mallory was a girl in motion, and nothing could stop her.
She accelerated past Mr. Bungler’s home. The bright blue siding made it look like one of her dollhouses. His yard smelled funny from the chemicals strange-looking men had sprinkled on it this morning. It sure was green, though.
Mrs. French’s yellow house was across the street. It reminded her of mustard covered sandwiches and her stomach growled. She had forgotten to pack a snack for her afternoon ride. Mrs. French was sitting in an old plastic lawn chair reading a book. She set it down and smiled. “You’re doing so well, honey,” she said. “Keep it up, Mallory.”
“Aw, thanks!” Mallory said. “I’m getting better every day!”
Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal!
Mallory leaned forward and pretended she was in a race.
I’m the fastest, I’m the bestest, and I’m gonna win!
Mallory rode past the Winchesters’ old house. It had been abandoned a month ago after a large fire burned it up. The scary black skeleton of wood creaked in the wind. It was her least favorite part of the ride, but it gave her a brief moment to practice her speed. The haunted structure made those feet off hers push harder on the pedals.
She reached the end of the street and stopped to catch her breath. Her throat was dry and her forehead felt hot. She turned around and headed back home, ready for a nice cold drink from the fridge. A high pitched jingle was increasing in volume down the road.
That sound … I know it!
Oh, the wonders that sound could bring, its heavenly notes promising one thing.
“ICE-CWEAM!” Mallory shouted.
Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal!
She flew down the sidewalk, hardly feeling the bumps and cracks where the sidewalk was broken. A white van with tinted windows came into view. The angelic tune was blasting from a speaker on top. Mallory’s stomach growled. Her favorite flavor of ice-cream was Superman. It looked like a rainbow, it was fun, and Mmmmm! was it delicious. What else was there like it in the world?
“Yum! Yum! Wah-hooeey!” Mallory said.
The van’s brakes squeaked when it parked alongside the curb. Mallory stopped next to a small tree. The van looked crummy up close. There was rust on the wheel wells and bottom edges. A wonky looking sticker of an ice-cream cone covered the side, more faded than the hand-me-down shirt she was wearing. The old and creepy van made her wonder what had happened to the newer, nicer van that usually visited the neighborhood.
The side door slid open. It was dark inside, a scary-closet kind of dark. Mallory couldn’t see anyone, but surely someone had opened the door. Where was the ice-cream? Where was the man?
“Mister! Got any ice-cweam in dare?” Mallory asked the darkness. Two large hands moved out of the blackness, floating in the air. She couldn’t see past their wrists.
“Hello, little girl,” the darkness spoke. The voice had to be coming from a man, but all she could see were his hands. “Would you like some ice-cream?”
“I sure would.” Mallory rocked back and forth on her bike. “But I don’t have any money.”
“That’s OK, there’s a sale today. The first one is free. My treat.”
“Uh-huh. Come inside the van and pick out your flavor.”
“Come inside?” Mallory crossed her arms. “How come inside?”
“There are all sorts of delicious flavors in here, all the good kinds. Come in and see.”
“You bet! Come inside, little girl, and get your ice-cream.”
Usually, the ice-cream man would walk outside and smile while he showed off his yummy treats. How come this man stayed inside? How come the ice-cream cost no money?
Dozens of speeches from Mommy ran through Mallory’s mind. It was hard to remember all of them, but there was something Mommy had told her over and over. It must have been important.
Stay on the sidewalk, Mallory. Close to the house. Don’t cross the road.
Keep both hands on the handlebars. Remember to wear your helmet.
Always remember to never, ever, talk to strangers. If a strange person bothers you, ride as fast as you can and scream for help.
Was this man a stranger?
No, he couldn’t be. He had delicious ice-cream inside his van. And he was going to give it away for free! Mommy must have been talking about other people—stranger people—to not talk to, although, the floating hands sure were odd.
“Little girl, don’t you want your ice-cream?” the darkness asked. “Cold ice-cream for a hot day. It’s beginning to melt.”
Mallory nearly fell off her bike in disgust. “Crime-ma-nee! Put it in da freezer then!”
“Help! Come get it before it melts.”
There was no greater crime to Mallory than wasted, melted ice-cream. She wanted it so bad her knees were shaking. Wonderful yellow, red, and blue swirled in a frosty blend. Oh, she just had to have that ice-cream!
“Ok, mister. I’m ready for my ice-cweam!” Mallory said.
She leaned her bike against the tree and jogged to the open door. Mommy’s voice kept repeating in her head:
Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t talk to—
The man’s hands stayed put. “Come inside, little girl,” he said.
Mallory nervously held her wrist. “It’s too dark.”
“It’s melting …”
Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t talk to strangers.
Mallory stuck her finger in her ear and wiggled it. Mommy’s voice was starting to give her a headache.
DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS!
Maybe this man was a stranger. Maybe there wasn’t any ice-cream. If Mommy was talking in her head, then crime-ma-nee, she needed to listen, even if it meant not getting any ice-cream.
“I won’t go in,” Mallory said. “You come out.”
“I won’t go in!”
“Yes, you will.” The man sounded scary now. He sounded evil. Two yellow eyes popped open up in the dark.
Mallory screamed, “STRANGER!”
Swish! Swish! she ran back to her bike.
Pedal! Pedal! she raced back home.
“Get back here, little girl!” the man shouted.
“Help meeeeee!” Mallory’s knees bobbed up and down, almost hitting her chin.
The van squealed and turned around. It was starting to chase her! She pedaled faster. The training wheels fluttered; the screws starting to loosen. She wished she hadn’t been tricked by the Bad Man.
“You’re mine, little girl,” the Bad Man yelled out the driver’s window.
Mallory passed by Mrs. French’s house. She stood up and said, “Oh, my word,” but she was too old to come rescue her.
The left training wheel shook and popped off the bike. “My wheelie!” Mallory said. The bike jerked to the side. She gripped the handlebars and steadied her riding. The right training wheel flew off next. Both wheels: gone.
“Help me! Wha-hooey!” Mallory couldn’t decide if she was terrified because of the Bad Man, or excited because she was riding all by herself for the first time. Either way, she pedaled faster, maybe the fastest she had ever pedaled.
Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal!
The Bad Man was driving right beside her. Mallory looked over; she could see his face now. His yellow eyes glared back at her. A shiny gold tooth flickered in his mischievous grin.
“Stranger! Bad Man! No ice-cweam!” Mallory said anything that came to her mind to get the image of the Bad Man out of her head. “Scary van! Shiny tooth! ALL I WANTED WAS SUPERMAN! WAS THAT SO DIFFICULT?”
The busy road was ahead. Mommy had told her never to get too close to it. But the Bad Man was chasing her. Where else could she go? She leaned forward and pedaled faster. The van got too close to the curb and rubbed against it.
“Pedal, pedal all you want, but I will get you!” the Bad Man said.
Mallory screamed. The sidewalk was ending soon. The busy road was right in front of her!
Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal!
She squeezed the brakes hard. The bike skidded across the sidewalk, but it wasn’t stopping. The back tire lifted up in the air. She felt like she was flying for a second before landing in a patch of soft grass in front of the crosswalk. The bike tumbled on the sidewalk, the rough surface scratching the frame. Her arm instantly started to hurt.
“Ow! Oh, owie!” Mallory cried. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the van coming straight at her. The Bad Man wasn’t slowing down for the busy road, he was speeding up.
“Ha-ha!” the Bad Man laughed. “Swish, swish, pedal, pedal my—”
The van crossed into the busy road. A semi-truck slammed into the side, sending glass and debris everywhere. The van rolled on the pavement (Mallory counted four rolls) before landing upside-down in the center of the road. Cars screeched and swerved around it. A man stepped out of the semi-truck, walking like he was dizzy. But the Bad Man didn’t come out of the ice-cream van. The music got slower and quieter, until a loud thunk shut it off for good.
Mallory sat up. Her arm was bleeding and her head hurt. She cried loudly and looked around for help.
Fast approaching footsteps on the sidewalk came up behind her. “Mallory! Mallory, oh dear, are you hurt?”
It was Mommy.
“My arm, Mommy!” Mallory pointed over to the crashed van. “It was the Bad Man!”
Mommy didn’t even notice the accident. She bent down and held Mallory’s arm. Somehow, that simple touch made it feel better. Mommy’s hands could do magic.
“The Bad Man!” Mallory began to cry harder and lifted up her hands, hoping Mommy would pick her up.
“Let’s get you home.”
Swish! Swish! Mommy carried her home.
Pedal! Pedal! Mallory looked at her bike on the sidewalk, and then the accident in the intersection. She hoped the Bad Man would never come back. She didn’t want other girls to get tricked, especially ones who couldn’t Swish! Swish! Pedal! Pedal! like her.
She was sad about her bike, but maybe Mommy would fix it or buy another one. After all, it was only a bike. There were dozens of those she could have, but there was only one Mallory. She nestled her head on Mommy’s shoulder. It had been a long day, one she’d never forget. She was a big girl, now. She didn’t need the training wheels anymore.
“After we clean up your arms and go to the doctor, we’ll stop and get ice-cream,” Mommy said. “That sound good?”
“I’m thinking Moosetracks,” Mommy said.
It wasn’t Superman, but it would do.
* * *