We rode our bikes back from Hammet High, trying not to feel dorky that we couldn’t drive yet. My bike’s a buncha years too small and I wasn’t sure if I should trick it to look cool, or let it rust to look cool cause I didn’t care about looking cool. I could never find the balance.
But the brisk November air felt sharp and tingly. Betty Ann had her earbuds deep in her ears and boogied subtly to music that only she could hear. She tended to like bands and songs that made her want to dance even if she was sitting down. I tended to like movie soundtracks. Not the kind with a collection of songs but the actual score. I like the mood and emotions conveyed through the music. Betty Ann says I’m broody and like to wallow. I like to think of it as emotionally adept.
We stopped at a red light, straddling our bikes with both feet on the sidewalk. Zzzzut! A bumblebee hovered around my head.
It was way late in the season for bees and I freaked a little, swatting at it.
“What’s your glitch?” Betty Ann said, pulling a bud from one ear.
“Bee,” I said, swiping madly at the dive-bombing bug.
“Don’t kill it. What are you, ogre guy?” I swung a few more times. “Quit.” The bee settled on the back of my neck and I hunched my shoulders praying it wouldn’t sting me. Betty Ann gently cupped her hands around the bee.
“Don’t,” I said, worried the bee was going to sting her hands. “You’re gonna get hurt.”
“Isn’t it past your shutting up time?” She tenderly scooped the bug off my neck and released it into freedom. She wiggled her eyebrows at me and plugged the plastic blob back into her ear.
I didn’t have any music so I thought about the case. The Hammet high team looked like a real threat to our team on Saturday. But I didn’t know if they had just practiced a lot or cheated a little. Course it could’ve been anybody on our team too. If the stakes are high enough people will do anything. Or it could be somebody else.
We collected a growing list of suspects. Round and round my thoughts went like a marble inside an empty coffee can. Rattling and bumping and getting nowhere.
I looked in the passenger side mirror of a car next to us, waiting for the light to change.
A black Ford Escort idled coupla cars back. I’d seen it when we first left the Hammet school parking lot. “Hm,” I said, kinda relieved there was something to derail my train of thought. “I wonder if we grew a tail”
Betty Ann just bopped to her music. I bumped her bike with my tire.
“Huh?” She pulled out the ear buds and I said again, “Think we grew a tail.”
Betty Ann spun—
“Don’t turn around,” I said.
Betty Ann was cool. She kept her eyes forward. “You sure?”
Actually I wasn’t. There were a lot of black Ford Escorts in the world. But Mr. Iverson was a pretty good science teacher and he always said, “Test the hypothesis.”
Instead of waiting for the light, I turned unexpectedly right and pedaled onward, Betty Ann keeping pace.
The black Escort turned right and fell in behind us. Still didn’t mean much, people make right turns all the time. So I made a sharp left at the next street and the car followed.
“Still there?” Betty Ann said, keeping her eyes forward.
“Yeah,” I said and turned sharply down a narrow street.
Horns honked. Tires squealed. The Escort fishtailed into the road behind us. Whoever was driving sucked at tailing. Although it wasn’t as easy as they made it look in the movies. I’d tried it a few times on foot. If you’re too close it’s easy to get spotted. You hold too far back and you can lose them in traffic, or crowds, or through an unexpected door. If you don’t want to be made you gotta be willing to let the tailee go. I explained all this to Betty Ann.
“This guy-” I said.
“Or gal,” Betty Ann amended.
“Or gal either just blew it or doesn’t care if we know. There’s no way he—“
“—can’t know we’ve seen them.” I turned another sharp left onto a side street just to be sure.
The Escort fell in behind us. With no cars between us now, I could see the guy/gal had duct taped cardboard over the front license plate. I could just make out the logo for Little Ceasar’s Pizza. Somebody was being careful.
It also meant they were definitely following us. My heart skipped a few beats as I realized what I’d done.
“Stupid,” I said too loud, pounding my knee with the side of my fist.
“What?” Betty Ann said, her voice growing kinda scared.
By turning down a buncha streets to see if we had a tail, I’d led us right onto a deserted stretch of road in a sucky section of town. Weeds grew through the cracks in the sidewalk making it hard to ride, and trash cans blocked the path forcing us into the street.
I heard the engine rev and risked a look behind. The Escort roared up behind us.
“Go! FAST!” I yelled and Betty Ann stood on her pedals, pumping hard. I heard the car gain on us and my heart climbed into my throat.
“Drexton,” Betty Ann yelled, the fear in her voice deep in the red zone.
“Just go!” I screamed. My palms got all sweaty and slipped on the handlebars. “Turn. NOW!”
Betty Ann turned sharply into a narrow alley between a liquor store and place that sold discount tile and flooring. The Escort’s braked squealed but it couldn’t fit down the tiny drive. It hesitated a moment, then drove on, peeling out in a cloud of blue smoke.
“Stop,” I yelled to Betty Ann. She hit her front brakes too hard and flipped over her handlebars, smacking painfully into the greasy cement.
“Betty Ann!” I pedaled for her, jumped off my bike before it stopped and let it smack into a dumpster. I knelt beside her, a little freaked at how pale she was, bright red splotches on her cheeks.
“Think so,” she said. A hole in her jeans exposed a bloody kneecap.
“You’re bleeding,” I said. That’s me, Captain Obvious.
“Just a scrape I think.” She stood, wincing a little. When she put weight on the leg she wobbled and I grabbed her to keep her from falling. She grabbed back.
There we stood, arms around each other. I had my nose buried in her curly hair and I got a whiff of flowery conditioner. It smelled pretty great.
We both realized we were kinda hugging at the same instant and broke apart. I jammed my hands in my back pockets and she kept pushing hair behind her ears.
“So,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
After a small forever she said, “What’s that all about?”
Woulda been really cool if I had an answer.