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My right temple throbbed as I sat on the coarse pavement, contemplating what had just happened. Had he pushed me? Did I crash my bike? Was I dead? My thoughts an unsolvable puzzle, I brought my hand to my head and let out a groan. Then the laughter arose as gradual but as thunderous as applause, and my vision focused, revealing my sprawled bicycle lying on its side right in front of him, the cause of my injury. Glancing up, I noticed for the first time that I was alone and outnumbered. Up until that moment, unsuspecting confidence had carried me through the standoff, and like fog clearing, it then became apparent to me that bad intentions were present in my fellow children of our small, sheltered hometown. In other words, what had seemed to be merely an awkward situation had turned out to be a grudge match.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know about Ashley and Brandon,” Zack spat, the only one of the three who wasn’t laughing.
I scanned my brain for any familiarity with the name Brandon but drew only blanks. Being a ten year old who still rode a pink bike with an incessantly annoying bell and colorful tassels hanging from the handlebars, making connections regarding teenage drama wasn’t my forte.
Zack must have sensed my genuine confusion because his face softened. Anger still commanded his clenched fists and ravenously scrunched face, but in his eyes I detected something different; it seemed to be a mixture of doubt, defeat, and guilt, all emotions I never knew Zack capable of having. Taking this subtle sign of weakness as an opportunity, I stumbled to my feet, and another explosion of ache spiraled from my temple down through my body in millions of different directions like a confetti cannon going off. Zack’s friends glanced at him as he searched his lengthy list of grievances for some argument to generate, which reverted my thoughts to why I was even here.
I slapped my hand to my forehead, a gesture I only intended to do in my head and one I immediately regretted because of my sore head.
“You’re mad because Ashley dumped you,” I said slowly in a tone that gave away how bad I was at keeping up. Though it was an obvious statement, it certainly saved my train of thought from veering way off the track, crashing, and burning.
Clearly grateful for something to focus on, Zack looked me square in the eye, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. I stared back, which wasn’t intended to be defiant but apparently had that effect because Zack suddenly gripped the collar of my purple giraffe shirt. Looked to my left, I saw that gleam of anticipation had returned in each of his friends’ eyes. Zack’s nose was whistling as he breathed, something I would’ve found hilarious had I not been frightened for my life. All I wanted to do was turn my childish bike around, go back down the long scenic stretch of road that was Whittier Drive, and go to the safety of my home. Forget Ashley’s house. Not after this.
“You were off to Ashley’s house?” he asked me.
My instincts screamed at me to run as I thought long and hard about how to answer that question, wondering if there was a right way. After about ten seconds, I stifled out, “Only to drop something off. Real quick though.”
His friends frowned, evidently unconvinced and compelling me to provide a better reason. It was that sudden flash of eagerness that crossed Zack’s eyes that sealed my lips and prevented me from elaborating. He let go of my collar and took a step back, and my stiff, tense frame relaxed as I tried to regain what little composure I could muster. “Well if you’re smart you’ll save that errand for later.”
Gratitude momentarily overpowered confusion as I practically tripped over my feet scrambling back over to my bike. Without looking back I hopped up onto the oversized, cushy seat and pumped my legs as fast as I could zooming straight down the steep hill I’d just hauled my bike up nearly twenty minutes before. The usual feeling of serenity that came when pedaling down that hill as the wind rushed across my face and blocked out all other noise was replaced this particular time with a pang in my gut, which even as a ten-year-old I conceptualized to be a warning of potential danger. Instead of an abrupt stop, I simply took my feet off the pedals and let my bike slow to a stop, both my hesitation and sense of obligation to go back playing tug-of-war with my decisiveness.
If I hadn’t been acting on impulse, I probably could’ve avoided getting the cut that now leaves a perfectly linear indentation above my left eyebrow. From the beginning when I wheeled my bike up the secret trail between the blackberry bushes and the firepond that Ashley and I had created when we were younger, I was on autopilot. Even when Zack flung me into the corner of the kitchen wall and thick, warm blood was trickling down my face, my common sense was still down at the bottom of that hill lingering with my final legitimate feelings of devotion toward my childhood best friend.
Jumping in front of her in order to give her time to escape from her hysterical ex boyfriend was almost my last farewell, and judging from the way our nightly phone calls, giddy hugs, and endless stupid adventures ceased after, I knew she got the message.
I would like to feel that sense of heroism and receive the praise I already do for saving the day the way amateurs do, with uncontainable grins and no humility whatsoever. I would like to have that event be a mistake and a story friends bring up at sleepovers when reminiscing about the past. But that’s not the case. I wish people learned the first time.