By Steve Finegan
“Come on baby, light my fire.” — Jim Morrison and The Doors
The moment Dennis opened his eyes that morning in late July, the morning of his twelfth birthday, all he could think about was the cool new Schwinn Sting-Ray bike he’d been waiting to tear around Northeast Portland on for … well, it seemed like forever. Now, thanks to the thief who’d swiped his old Brand X clunker out of the front yard that June, he could almost feel himself astride that cool new banana seat, his grip cowboy-easy on those high-rise handlebars. In fact, he was so close to owning a new Sting-Ray he could almost smell it.
Actually, he smelled steaming waffles and sizzling bacon, evidence that his mom was hard at work on his favorite birthday breakfast. It was a good omen, a sign of many more good things to come.
Dennis pulled on his frayed Levi’s cut-offs, made for the open window, thrust out his head. The weather was already cooperating, as it had pretty much all summer so far. Brilliant blue sky and warm air on his face with the promise of asphalt-melting heat that afternoon. Which meant ice-cold root beer, popsicles, and ice cream floats with his birthday cake, and cool green grass under his bare feet.
Below, on an aluminum lounge in the backyard, his sixteen-year-old sister Matty was already stretched out like a lioness in her black and white polka-dotted bikini, an open Seventeen magazine covering her face, hard at work on her “righteous” (her favorite word) tan at ten in the morning. Matty was a serious sunbather, well-oiled and golden brown; she even had coppery, sun-bleached hair. Beside her on a folding TV-dinner tray—next to a bottle of Coppertone and a tall glass of Pepsi on the rocks—a transistor radio tuned to Mighty Ninety-Wonderful KISN 910 AM blared “All You Need Is Love.” Another great omen. Dennis loved that Beatles song. That and, of course, The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”
Speaking of fire, Matty was a tempting target to fire on. Dennis looked around the top of his dresser and spied the handful of hazelnuts he and Gabe Reed had been unsuccessfully trying to crack in their bare fists during last night’s Star Trek rerun. He snatched one up and tossed it at his sister. Perfect shot! It smacked the magazine dead center.
Matty tore off her cover and glared up. “Knock it off, Perv!”
“It’s my birthday,” he crooned.
“It’s my birthday,” she mimicked. “Buzz off.”
“I will, when I get my new bike.”
“No way. Dad’s waaaaay too cheap. They’re getting you a hamster or something else that’ll die in a day or two, you’ll see.”
Dennis picked up another hazelnut, and this time threw it as hard as he could, striking Matty square on the boob.
“Yes!” He threw up his arms and did a complete turn.
“Dammit!” Matty sat up. “One more time, Perv, and I’m coming up there. I’ll give you a birthday present you’ll never forget. Just you wait …”
Dennis pulled back from the window. He’d yanked the lioness’s tail; his best bet now was to slowly back away and head downstairs to his birthday breakfast. He sure didn’t need a crippling charlie horse today of all days. Anyway, Matty was just kidding. He knew he was getting that bike. He had to get that bike.
Yep, by the end of the day, he would be—it never hurt to cross your fingers—the proud possessor of a Sting-Ray and finally a little respect from Mike Larson and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood with Sting-Rays.
That Dennis didn’t own the ultimate bike was an endless source of embarrassment, and it was killing his chances with girls.
With a new Sting-Ray, he might even have a passing shot at getting the Steffens twins’ attention, especially Carla; no—just Carla. He hummed “All You Need Is Love” under his breath as he headed for the stairs.
Carla Steffens. Dennis hadn’t taken much notice of Carla when her family moved in down the street the summer before. She’d been a soft-spoken—but in no way shy—go-it-her-own-way kind of girl, and not so popular with the other sixth-graders. To make matters worse, both Carla and her twin sister, Jenny, had worn braces with a bunch of rubber bands and headgear the previous winter. But this summer, the braces were gone and Carla (and he guessed Jenny, too) had blossomed right under his nose. She was hot.
Not that he cared that much. It was well known that Carla liked Jack Brandt, and that was fine by Dennis, he guessed. After all, there were lots of girls on Alameda Street; he just needed that bike to get in the game.
And the game was ditch’em. Bike ditch’em, to be exact. Twenty or more kids. Two teams. One team to tear off in a hundred different directions, and the you’re it team to search them out after counting off twenty slow (everyone cheated) Mississippis. Not a lot of time to get away. The game covered dozens of blocks, but there were definite borders: Sabin School and Water Tank Park to the west. Fremont Street to the south. Thirty-Third Avenue to the east, and Prescott Street to the north.
If you were on the hiding team and got caught, you were thrown in prison, under guard, at the top of Deadman’s Hill, which is where Dennis on his dorky old clunker usually wound up, after being chased down like a maroon, usually by Mike Larson. Dennis liked Mike, but he hated being caught by him. Not just because it got him slapped on the back of the head—which was Mike’s particular brand of tagging—and thrown in prison for a round, unless someone freed him, but mostly because Mike wouldn’t stop at slapping (or punching or ear thumping), bad as it was. No. If he had the least excuse, like an open button fly or a Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirt, he always started ranking you down. Mike was the king of rank downs, which just kept falling like hammer blows one right after another until his victim was pulverized, usually in front of a large audience.
In Dennis’s case, Mike would go out of his way to rank down the cheap piece of “made-in-Japan crap” he was riding and, while he was on a roll, Dennis’s house, his family car, and possibly even his mother and sister to boot.
And when he went after Dennis, he always did it in front of Carla.
But starting that evening, Dennis’s odds of outrunning Mike and avoiding the slap would be so much better on that cool new Sting-Ray. And if he was caught, what could Mike possibly say against a Sting-Ray? Dennis rubbed his hands. The game would start right after his birthday party that evening and go on well after dark. He couldn’t wait.
Dennis’s mom made a big deal out of birthdays, especially his younger sister Sara’s, but Dennis wasn’t far behind. Matty, being the oldest, got a lot of girly stuff for her special day that made Dennis and Sara laugh and roll their eyes at each other.
That afternoon, they held his party in the backyard. It was a family affair. Mom, Dad, Sara, Grandma, Duke the Bassett hound (a hat tip to The Duke, John Wayne), and a pouty Matty, still mad from that morning’s hazelnut barrage and itching to go hang out with her friends at Diddler’s Beach out on Marine Drive.
The big spread included huge, greasy burgers you could barely fit in your mouth, corn on the cob, cantaloupe slices, potato salad, lemonade, ice tea and, to top it all off, chocolate birthday cake—Dennis blew out the twelve candles in one try—with vanilla ice cream and root beer floats. By the time he’d demolished his last piece of cake, Dennis was so stuffed his stomach stuck out like he was the first boy ever on the planet to get pregnant.
But not too stuffed to tear into his presents like a caffeinated wolverine.
Matty wasn’t interested in her brother’s presents. “Righteous burgers, Mom,” she said. “Now can I go?”
No, she couldn’t, so the lioness slumped down on the picnic bench and growled, “That’s it, I’m running away to Frisco.”
Let her run—all the way to Haight Ashbury, with flowers in her hair. Dennis didn’t care: Grandma had just given him ten whole dollars, cash money. Aunt Dolly and Uncle Phil followed with some lame matchbox cars that he already had in a cigar box in his room, and Mom came down the back porch stairs with a “ta-da,” carrying two green turtles in a bowl, which scared Dennis in case Matty was right about Dad’s legendary cheapness getting the upper hand, even though he knew there was something else, in the garage.
And that’s where Dad went now, making Dennis squirm in anticipation.
A moment later, he re-appeared hauling a big … box?
Dennis stopped squirming and stared. Brand new bikes were rolled out sparkling, like cars just off the showroom floor. He’d avoided the garage all day, just so he could be surprised by all that glittering chrome and glossy factory paint, and the smell. This was a plain brown box crimped tight with enormous staples—a box roughly the size and shape of a bike. But what kind of bike came in a plain brown box?
“Hey, kiddo!” said Dad.
Dennis managed a grunt, “Huh?”
“Guess what it is yet?”
“Ah … a bike?” asked Dennis carefully.
“Happy birthday!” shouted Mom and Dad together.
“You get to put it together,” said Dad, as in you lucky dog.
“Gee, thanks,” said Dennis, scanning the box for the word Schwinn, even as it dawned on him that what he’d just received for his twelfth birthday wasn’t a Sting-Ray but what Mike Larson called a “Montgomery Ward’s special.” In other words: a schlocky made-in-Japan piece of crap (and that was putting it kindly).
“Here, let me help you with that, kiddo,” said Dad, attacking the staples with a pair of pliers. Dennis forced a smile, even as his stomach sank into his over-stuffed belly like a U-boat torpedoed by a cheerful American sub crew in a World War Two movie.
A quick glance at Matty showed that she was feeling his pain, and loving every minute of it. She’d stopped pouting and was staring at the box with bright eyes and a big phony smile. “Yeah, Daddy, open it up!” she said, clapping her hands.
And so Dennis’s new bike came into the world—in pieces.
The sun was sinking behind the West Hills, Mom and Grandma had long since cleared the table, Sara was next door playing Barbie and Ken with her friend Katie, and Matty was long gone to Diddler’s Beach by the time Dennis and his dad finally finished building his new … ah, Sting-Ray. To add insult to injury, it was baby-puke yellow. Baby-puke yellow! Really, Dad? And no sooner was it bolted together, than Dennis discovered more flaws than the damage it was going to do to his reputation. For starters, there were a lot of sharp angles and edges, especially the fenders, and globby, painted-over solder seams. The chain was too loose and no amount of tightening seemed to help. And then there were the tires: the real Sting-Ray came with either a slick or knobby rear tire, while this bike had those balloon tires that went out in the ’50s.
Still … It was a bike. He was back in the game, if he dared.
Dennis thought of Mike and swallowed the lump in his throat.
That evening, on his ride over to Deadman’s Hill to meet up with his friends, Dennis learned something else about his new bike that made him seriously consider turning around and riding back home. The pedal cranks weren’t molded to taper like on the real Sting-Ray, but were fitted in such a way that the sharp edges nicked both inside ankles, right below the bone, every time he pedaled fast. Blood was trickling into his canvas boat shoes by the time he reached Mike, Carla, Jenny, and the rest of the crew perched on their bikes by the street sign at the top of the hill.
“Hey, Goodwill have a sale just in time for your birthday!” shouted Mike, kindly directing everyone’s attention to Dennis’s new bike. There were laughs and yucks all around.
“Ha-ha!” grunted Dennis half-heartedly. If he said one word, Mike would probably go off on him before the game even started. And what could he say in return, even if he could get a word in edgewise? Mike had a tricked out Sting-Ray that was the closest thing to a kids’ Corvette you could get.
Mike eyed the baby-puke yellow bike, and Dennis was sure he was taking inventory of all its flaws, coming up with appropriate rank-downs for each and every one of them, socking them away for later, but not much later.
Carla and Jenny sat on their girls’ Sting-Rays laughing right along with everyone else, including his buddy Gabe. Traitor. Eli might not have laughed, because she’d been Mike’s victim so many times, but she was in Europe with her parents for the summer, so Dennis sucked it up. He was here, and he had a bike, sort of. He’d play and let the chips fall …
Dennis roared down Mason Street on his new Montgomery Ward’s special, his nostrils tingling with the warm evening smells of freshly mowed grass, cooling asphalt, white-hot charcoal briquettes, and a dozen other scents that were as much a part of his birthday as presents and cake. Of course, every now and then he clipped his raw and bleeding ankles, but that was a problem he was inclined to overlook considering the endless summer night ahead and the fact that just behind him rode Carla and Jenny, and the three of them were separated from the other ditchers.
Jenny pulled up next to Dennis, blonde hair flying. She was tan and barefoot, in cutoffs and an orange bikini top. “Today really your birthday?” she asked.
She nodded at his bike. “And that’s what you got?” She sounded amazed.
Jenny looked at Carla, who’d pulled even, her flying blonde hair mingling with her sister’s as she checked out Dennis’s bloody ankles. He looked at her, too, with a pang in his chest. Strangers could barely tell the twins apart, but he could. Easily. Strange how Jenny was just Jenny, but he noticed lots of little things about Carla, like the way her kneecaps were tanned a darker shade of brown than the rest of her long legs, and the way the fine blonde down on her forearms looked like spun gold, especially against the white of her oversized boys’ t-shirt, and the way he could see the flashing green of her eyes in the slow summer sunset.
“I’m gonna find Gabe and Jack,” said Jenny.
“I’ll come with you,” said Carla eagerly. Jenny’s voice was shrill compared to Carla’s, which sounded something like a purring jaguar. She smiled at Dennis. It wasn’t a mean smile or a smirking smile or a put-down smile. It was a real smile, and Dennis wanted her to stay with him in the worst way—not go hunting for Jack.
“Wait!” he cried, standing on his pedals. “I’ve got an idea!” No he didn’t.
“What?” said Carla and Jenny together. They did that a lot.
“Ah, let’s go to … Water Tank Park!” The moment he’d said it, Dennis knew it was a stupid idea.
“That’s all the way in the other direction,” complained Jenny.
“Well…?” said Dennis, looking at Carla.
She said nothing.
“Forget it!” said Jenny, apparently speaking for the both of them.
Stupid as it was, his outburst seemed to do the trick; the twins didn’t say any more about trying to find Gabe and Jack. On they pedaled.
Dennis turned off Mason and coasted along Regents Drive with Jenny on his right and Carla on his left.
“Look,” he said in a moment of inspiration (better late than never). “Why don’t we shoot down Regents, right past the prison gate?”
“No way!” said Jenny. “Mike or Doug or someone’ll catch us, for sure.”
“So what! They gotta catch us and tag us.” said Dennis, hoping he sounded confident. “I mean, we’re already gonna be riding downhill, right? We got a huge head start on ’em!”
Jenny wasn’t impressed. “Yeah, well they’ll be coming down Deadman’s. Fast. Real fast. So much for your head start!” She smirked at his new bike. “How fast can you go on that thing, anyway?”
“Yeah, right.” Jenny rolled her eyes. Carla just smiled.
“Okay,” said Dennis, goaded into throwing down the gauntlet: “I dare ya to ride past the bottom of Deadman’s with me.”
Carla and Jenny looked at each other. It was hard to turn down a dare. If they said no, it was like saying they didn’t think they could outrun those bastards on Mike’s team, like they didn’t have the guts to try. And he did. So much for Jenny’s smirk! Now he looked tough. Now he looked like a hero. Now he …
“Okay,” said Carla.
“Wait a minute!” Jenny scowled and braked at the corner of Alameda, under a streetlight that was sleepily winking on in the gathering midsummer shadows. Carla pulled up beside her and shrugged, as if to say, hey, he dared us. Dennis stopped with his feet, heart thumping. Carla had actually agreed with him! That had to mean something. He took a deep breath and looked up. The air was balmy on his face and the twilit sky was a velvety indigo blue. Here and there a star twinkled. A really bright one that was probably a planet caught his eye.
“It’s suicide!” said Jenny at last.
“If we’re not going to meet up with Jack, I don’t care what we do,” said Carla with a bored little shrug.
Dennis’s star-planet might as well have fallen right out of the sky and landed on his head. Carla had agreed with him, but it didn’t mean anything.
Still straddling his bike, he walked it in a circle around the two girls as they argued about nothing, which the twins did sometimes. “If we don’t hurry up, someone’ll come along, and they will catch us,” he said. Fortunately, his peevish-sounding voice was nearly drown out by the smoky roar of a red Rose City Transit bus, turning right under another winking streetlight onto Regents Drive, on its way to Broadway and downtown. Dennis’s gaze wandered across the wide intersection in the wake of the bus.
His mouth suddenly snapped shut and he nearly fell off his cheesy imitation banana seat.
Straddling their bikes under the light pole, in the blue haze of the departing bus, were five kids. No, five teenage boys. Not teammates and not pretend pursuers. Five enemies. Dennis knew them, every one of them. Back in June, he’d been riding his clunker around the Grant High School cinder track with Bobby McElroy when they’d come riding over the grassy rim and descended on him in a skidding cloud of dust. He trembled now, remembering the tangy-salty taste of blood in his mouth and Bobby’s split eyebrow and concussion.
How could he not have seen them before the bus came?
“We gotta get out of here,” said Dennis, whipping his bike around. But Carla and Jenny were too caught up in their bickering to pick up on the threat.
The ringleader, a kid the other boys called Zeke (no kidding), had promised Dennis he’d kill him if he ever saw him again. Well, Zeke had seen him; he beckoned his gang of four to follow him across the wide street.
“Oh shit!” croaked Dennis. “Come on! Ride!”
The girls suddenly stopped arguing, no doubt having caught the terror in his barely audible voice. They tore off down Alameda toward home, but at the very moment Dennis stood on his pedals to do the same, his loose chain slipped off the chain wheel and he sat down hard on the banana seat. “Ow!” It was all in slow motion after that: the bike fell sideways to the pavement, skewing its handlebars and scuffing a handgrip, while Dennis stood flushed-faced and doubled over, watching the twins vanish into the fading light.
Zeke and his buddies howled. “Hey, dumbass nutted hisself.”
In an instant, Dennis was surrounded. Where were his friends when he needed them? Who was he kidding? Mike might be crazy enough and tough enough to take on a high school kid, but not all five of them. As for the rest of his friends, all of them put together wouldn’t stand up to even one of these guys. Dennis did his best to straighten up, but he was starting to feel dizzy, and his cake and burgers were about to come back up.
“Hey, I know you,” said Zeke, braking with his sneakered-feet in front of Dennis. He was wearing skin-tight jeans with a peace sign penned in black ink on his thigh. “And I don’t like your ugly face.” Zeke’s four friends moved in and surrounded Dennis, their tires making a spongy sound on the warm asphalt. “Just maybe I’ll rearrange it for ya, huh?”
If Dennis had been watching from a safe distance, he might have laughed at the teenager’s corny B-movie lines. But Zeke was so close, Dennis could smell his sour BO and stale cigarette breath, and see the zits under his scruffy beard, and the pack of Marlboro’s rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. Zeke had crazy half-crossed eyes that Dennis avoided by looking down at his bike chain, which he lifted into place and rolled back onto the sharp-sprocketed chain wheel.
“Hey, punk, I’m talking to you,” said Zeke, and he hocked up a luggie and spit in Dennis’s hair.
“Hey, cob on him again!” warbled one of the boys.
That’s when Dennis knew he was going to suffer before they beat the crap out of him. He didn’t look up, because he knew he’d see Zeke’s leering cross-eyed face and those four other ugly faces, all smirking, and everyone twitching and rubbing their knuckles or balling their fists like they were about to rumble a rival gang.
He lifted his chain-greased fingers to wipe away the dripping glob.
Zeke slapped his hand down. “No, you look better wearing a cob hat, doesn’t he?
Yeahs all around.
That’s when Dennis started to cry. Tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, dripping down to sparkle in the lingering summer twilight on the skewed handlebars of his brand new bike, the one his dad and mom had just gotten him for his birthday. How could these guys do this to him? He was full of birthday cake and ice cream and bleeding from cuts on both ankles. If his mom could see him now she’d scream at them for threatening her baby. If his dad could see him, he’d shoot the bastards with his Navy Colt. Dennis wished Dad would come along and do just that. Really. He hated these guys. He wanted them dead. Dead and gone. But his parents weren’t here and these guys weren’t going to shrivel up and die just because he wanted them to. His tears fell faster, running down the handlebars as if the bike were sprawled there injured and weeping. He even felt sorry for it. It was his birthday present. He bit his lower lip to stifle a sob.
“Hey, watch’ya lookin at?” demanded Zeke. “Bike got an owie? Hey, Web, kid’s bleedin’ and his bike’s got an owie, too.”
“Owie,” echoed one of the boys. A kid named Webber, a real dickhead. “Why don’t we give him an owie on his face to go with it?”
“Good idea!” crowed Zeke.
Agreement all around.
“Let’s break his face and knock his teeth out, huh?” said Webber.
“Get a load of that piece of junk he’s riding!” snorted another member of the gang.
A part of Dennis was standing there waiting for the first punch to land, while another part of him had split off and was standing a little distance away, watching the whole fiasco unfold, knowing what was coming next and how it would end. “I just got it today, for my birthday.” Wow! Why had he said that? Could he sound any more pathetic?
Sure enough, Zeke pounced. “‘For my birthday!’” he sneered. “Hear that? Dink’s a birthday boy!”
“I’ve got five presents for you, birthday boy,” said Webber. Slowly closing his thumb and fingers, one at a time, he counted off as he made a fist: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five!”
“Yeah, but first, I think we outta fix his new bike for him—for his birthday,” said Zeke. “Whaddya say?”
All five boys laughed. The bastard behind Dennis slapped the back of his head hard, ten times harder than Mike ever had, hard enough to make his ears ring. His tears rained down on his new baby-puke yellow Montgomery Ward’s special and it looked even more pathetic.
Dennis felt a push and he staggered back with a tiny gasp, tripped over the curb, and fell with a grunt on his back on the parking strip grass; it poked up dry and prickly through his t-shirt.
That’s when he heard the sound of metal screeching on asphalt and raised his head to see his bike being dragged across the street. He winced at the sound and sight, like he was being forced to look on as the teenagers tortured a dog or some other living thing—living for now, that is. He rose up on an elbow and, along with the three juvies surrounding him, watched Zeke and Webber reach the other side of the street where the gut-wrenching screeching finally stopped.
But the let-up was only temporary.
Zeke hefted the bike and threw it sideways against the telephone pole, connecting with a loud whack, followed by a crunch as it hit the pavement; then more scraping and screeching as Webber kicked it sideways. Dennis and his dad had just spent what suddenly seemed like a lot of happy hours putting that bike together. Now these bastards were destroying it, and laughing.
Dennis sat up.
At that moment, a man called out, “Hey, didn’t I tell you punks to stop hanging out around here?”
Zeke laughed, picked up Dennis’s bike, and sent it rolling down Regent’s Drive. “Yeah, bite me, asshole!” he shouted. Suddenly Dennis found himself all alone as Zeke’s friends humped it over to other side of the street and skidded to a stop beside their ringleader.
“Okay, big mouth,” shouted the man. He loomed large out of the shadows behind a Great Dane pulling at the end of a leash. The dog started snarling and barking, and more people came out of their houses and yards, shouting, “What the hell’s going on out here?”
But Zeke and Webber had already mounted their bikes and ridden off with the rest of the gang, headed down the hill after the run-away bike; meanwhile the Great Dane strained at its leash to go after the fleeing teens.
Dennis didn’t pay much attention to the people who’d come to his rescue; he was up and running now, racing to catch up with his poor bike as it rolled down Regents Drive like a fleeing rabbit with twisted ears.
“Hey, stop!” cried Dennis, running down the middle of the street. He didn’t care about Zeke and his friends anymore. Didn’t care about their threats or their fists. His boat shoes made a flop-flop-flop sound on the asphalt as he rounded the bend on the sweeping drive and saw his bike, front wheel revolving drunkenly, down in front of the stone wall. Zeke and his friends were there, stomping it like it was a downed pony.
“Stop!” shouted Dennis. “Stooooop!”
Zeke lifted his ugly cross-eyed face.
But he didn’t have time to react before Dennis’s racing momentum carried him into the bigger boy. Zeke flew back, tripped over the wrecked bike, and fell with a grunt against the rock wall. In that instant, blood spurted from a ragged gash that opened, almost magically, like a red mouth just beneath Zeke’s bare inside ankle, just about even with his low-cut black Converse tennis shoe. He’d caught his foot on one of those sharp edges, maybe the chain wheel (the chain was off again), maybe a fender, maybe something else. However it happened, blood spurted and gushed, and Zeke’s eyes went wide with fear. “Mommy!” he cried; then, “Shit!”
His friends gasped. “Christ!” cried Webber. “Look at all that blood!”
Dennis stood over the fallen boy, panting. Almost daring him to get up and do what he’d threatened to do or what he’d just been doing—to him this time, not his bike. Webber and the other boys just sat their rides, mouths hanging open, watching their writhing ringleader whimper and clutch at his spurting gash while Dennis, nearly blinded by his red rage, stood over him clenching and unclenching his fists. “I wish you’d die!” he screamed. “I hope you do!”
Then he fell to his knees beside his bike and he sobbed.
“Hey, what’s going on over there?” A couple of men were running toward them from the other side of the street.
“Let’s beat it!” said one of the boys, and Zeke’s friends were gone, just like that, including Webber.
Before the men got there, Dennis cuffed his tears away, ripped off his t-shirt, and pushed it against the long gash in Zeke’s ankle. The no-so-tough-looking teenager had lost a lot of pumping blood: there was blood on the sidewalk, on Dennis’s bike, on Dennis. He pushed down hard over the sliced artery.
He was still pushing when the men came up, followed by Carla and Jenny, Mike, Doug, Gabe, Jack, and all the rest of his friends on their bikes. By the time he heard the siren, Dennis was shaking all over.
Later, after the cops came and a dozen witnesses damned Zeke and praised Dennis, and after the cops drove Zeke to Providence Hospital, and after a fire truck hosed Zeke’s blood off the warm sidewalk, a shirtless and gore-crusted Dennis told and retold his story a hundred times to an amazed crowd that included Mike Larson, who was clearly not happy about being upstaged, and Carla Steffens.
Finally, Dennis set out to walk his bike home, wondering what he was going to say to his folks. The moment he moved away from the circle of kids milling around the top of Deadman’s Hill, like bees stirred up with a stick, Mike started talking loudly after him: “Hey, Goodwill doesn’t give refunds!” He didn’t get any laughs. “Hey, someone try to fix your new bike with a crowbar!” Still no laughs and even a few groans. “Hey, come back here, I’ve got a birthday present for ya … oh, its your sister. Heehee!” Pretty much all groans now.
Dennis didn’t even bother to look back. He just kept walking away. Seeming to sense he was off his game, Mike switched to a story about how he’d been bloodied up pretty good himself the summer before, single-handedly rumbling a gang at Water Tank Park. “I broke one guy’s jaw with a punch, like this …” boomed Mike. “Sent him right to the hospital.”
Funny, Dennis didn’t remember ever hearing about that fight. His hand still trembling a little, he stroked a dirty, ground-in scuff on his white banana seat. The bike was scuffed and scratched and bloodied up pretty much all over, but it had come out in better shape than he’d expected. Hell, it didn’t seem bent beyond repair and it was rolling straight. He figured he and his dad could straighten the handlebars and fix the chain and …
“Hey, Dennis, wait up.”
It was Carla.
He stopped and half-turned, waiting for her. The night was still warm, cooled in places by hissing lawn sprinklers, and Dennis was finally starting to settle down. He felt tired, but not too tired for Carla. She was walking her bike, too. “Hey,” he said.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“That was brave of you to help him like that, after …”
“I didn’t do anything special.” Dennis kept looking at his bike.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“It’s just that, when they were wrecking my bike, it was like they were beating me up, or killing my dog. I don’t know. It was strange.” He snorted a laugh. “I didn’t even like it when I got it this afternoon. But now …” He stroked the handlebar. “I don’t know …”
Carla was quiet for a long moment as they walked. “Do you want to come over to my house and listen to music?”
He nearly stopped and looked at her but just kept walking, hoping his feet wouldn’t float off the ground. “Um, yeah, but … I mean, look at me.” What would your mom and dad think if they saw all this blood? Makes me feel awful. Stinks, too. I don’t think they’d like it.”
She curled her nose and slapped her forehead. “Duh!”
They both laughed.
They were coming to Dennis’s house. “Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said. It was more of a question than a statement.
“Hey, what’s your favorite song?” asked Carla.
“Ah, let’s see … ‘All You Need is Love,’ I guess.” He blushed and was glad it was dark; well, as dark as it gets on beautiful warm summer nights in the Northwest.
“All you need is love, dum, dum, dum, dum, dummm!” sang Carla and laughed. She had a good voice, really good.
“And ‘Light My Fire,’” he said.
Carla segued seamlessly, like on the radio, singing “Light My Fire” in a sultry voice as she pushed her long blonde hair up over the back of her head. She kept singing as she drifted across the street and headed toward her house.
Heart and breath both running to exit his throat, Dennis watched Carla, still singing, pass under the streetlight on the corner, her long-legged shadow skimming across the soft asphalt. He watched her roll her bike up her driveway and vanish from view; then he stayed there until a door closed, shrinking her finale to a faint wedge of sound coming from an open upstairs window: “Try to set the night on FIUUURRRRR!”
At last, heart still racing, Dennis walked up his own driveway, leaned his bike—he was beginning to think of it as his lucky bike—against the garage door, and made his way up the back porch stairs. Through the door window, he could see Dad on the phone, while Mom sat nearby, hugging Sara who was crying. Matty was home early, sitting at the table, flipping randomly through a magazine. All four, and Duke, barking like crazy, swarmed Dennis when he walked through the back door. Even Matty ignored all the sticky blood and hugged him. “Good job, Perv!” she said. “Oh, and happy birthday.”