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2.05.2012

You Pedal, I'll Steer (part 11)

John and Alec are in big trouble! They were so busy testing the new bike they got home late for supper. That wasn't going to put Dad in a good mood to let them enter the race...


CHAPTER 16

My mind went completely blank. “I don’t know,” I said.
“We were down at Mike’s Bikes getting our two seater welded,” Alec explained. All the cheeriness had drained from his voice. So had the colour from his cheeks. “It’s out back.”
“I want to know why you missed dinner,” Dad demanded. I looked at the table. Corned beef and home fries – again. That made three nights in a row. I wasn’t sorry to miss that.
“After the bike was fixed, we practiced down on the boardwalk. I guess we forgot the time.” It was a good thing Alec could talk because my vocal cords had scampered down my throat and were hiding in my empty stomach. “We needed to practice because the race is on Saturday,” he added.
“What race?” Eric asked, stirring it up. “You guys enter a race we don’t know about?”
“Yeah,” Alec’s voice picked up like this was a life raft to grab. “Me and John built this bike to race on Centre Island this weekend. Want to see it?”
Dad pushed his plate away. We stood frozen for a hundred years, waiting. “Wash up and get some dinner off the stove. We’ll talk about this after.”
“Yes, sir.”
“I want to check out this bike,” Jeff said. “May I be excused?”
Dad nodded. There was a scramble for the door. I stumbled towards the kitchen.
I came back in with dripping hands and a plate of cold hash. Alec had split, too, leaving me standing alone with Dad. He sat leaning forward, both elbows on the table, a cigarette pinched between a couple of fingers and a long stream of smoke coming out of his nose. “You entered that race on the island this weekend?”
Alec made a tactical error leaving me alone here with Smaug. I’d spill everything.
I gulped. “Yes, sir. It’s for kids under twelve. Alec filled it out. We got a number and everything.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Didn’t he? He meant to.”
His mouth was tight. My eyes darted to the stairs wishing someone, even the dog, would come back in and rescue me.
“You want to come out and see it?” I squeaked like a mouse.
He ground his cigarette out in his plate and nodded an angry dragon’s nod. “Okay.”
It felt like a spring has been released in my legs. I skipped out two stairs at a time and ran to join the others in the front yard all crowded around the Tidely. Jeff was balancing on the back seat while Eric held the front down.
Alec was saying, “It flies like a rocket.”
“I bet.” Eric seemed impressed. “Mike Welton did this work for you? Not bad. What’d it cost?”
“Too bad this front seat is only big enough for Johnnie,” Jeff said. “Maybe you could fit, Katie.”
“You won’t get me on that contraption,” she said. “Are you really in a race?”
“Yup,” Alec said with a flicker of a glance at Dad who was looking the bike over. So far so good.
Alec sent me off to 67 to get our entry form. It looked like everything might be okay. But when I got back he and Dad were going at it for real. Dad was losing his temper. Kind of like when a dog growls at you and you know the next thing he’s going to do is bite.
“You’ve got to let us go. We worked so hard!” Alec was saying. “It isn’t fair.”
“If you’d told me a couple of weeks ago - even one week ago - maybe. But I’ve made plans to go to Grandma’s in the County this weekend.”
A trip to the County. Alec’s favourite place in the world. Taking the bike there to show cousin William would be lots of fun. I could see he was torn. “How about we go next weekend?” he pleaded.
Dad shook his head. “I planned this trip for you. William is expecting you to stay with him in Hubbs Crik.”
“We can’t go.” Alec tried to sound like Dad would when he laid down the law. But you don’t talk like that to Dad and stay on Earth for long. “...please? What if we leave after the race? We did tell you about it! Remember?”
We all waited for the judge’s verdict. Alec grabbed the race form from me and offered it to Dad. But Eric snatched it first.
“Let me see that. You really entered this mongrel in a bike race?” He laughed.
Alec said, “They didn’t specify what type of bike, so we built our own. Mike was so impressed he offered me a job helping him out next spring.”
“Really?” Jeff said.
Even Dad raised an eyebrow at that one. “He offered you a job?”
Alec nodded. “Didn’t he, John?”
“Yup. He said Alec did good work and to come back in the spring.”
Eric flicked the paper at Alec. “You are such a loser. You’ll get disqualified for sure, moron.”
“Will not,” Alec replied.
“Are you kidding? It says a bike race. Not a homemade, two wheeled Magilla.”
“It doesn’t say we can’t,” Alec insisted.
Dad raised his hands. “It’s moot anyway. We’re going to the County on Saturday morning and that’s final. Now, you two go inside and eat something so you can get your homework done before bedtime.”
Bang – sentenced to two days in the country, no parole.
Everyone trouped inside. One look at Alec’s face and I knew this wasn’t over. We put the bike in the cellar and forced down reheated corned beef hash. I had a million questions to ask but I didn’t say anything.
Alec was scheming. CHAPTER 17

We spent all the time we could that week practicing on the Tidely. Since she was a ship, we picked navy terms like ‘starboard’ and ‘port’ for right and left and Alec would yell ‘full astern’ when he was going to slam the brakes and ‘lay to’ to pedal like mad. We sail down the boardwalk with the cold fishy lake breeze stinging our cheeks, him crouched forward over my head yelling, “steady as she goes” and “trim up that line”.
In the afternoons, we rode it on the streets. Since both of us pedaled, some of the hills didn’t bother us at all. It was a lot of fun. We were free and felt powerful. Everyone did a double take when they saw this bike roll by. I wanted to show it off at school but Alec said no.
School was a blur. All I could think about was riding that bike. I wanted to sail all day until we could fly over the lake and disappear in the clouds. I dreamed about adventures with Debbie in my seat and me pedaling from Alec’s. We entered races, went on trips and fought evil witches.
I lucked out with Payson’s Idiots, too. Kevin Coughlin came to school on Monday with a huge rip in the backside of his pants and that gave the creeps someone new to pick on for a while.
On top of that, the pet show was coming up at the end of the week and that’s all anyone in class talked about. Everyone was telling tall tales about what their pet could do. I still had to work on a trick for Gully but I knew he’d win no matter what he did.
Was the curse lifted? Maybe going to the graveyard paid off. Things were going well.
When I got home there was a note waiting in McGill for me to meet Alec in the Door Room. He’d decided we could use it again since Mom was the only one who knew and she wasn’t home. I had to give the password twice before he gave the counter sign to come in. This time I let Gully in with me.
We crawled through to find Alec concentrating on a very strange project. Spread out on a shoe box lid was an open pack of cigarettes, a small pile of tobacco, and a couple of those really tiny lady finger firecrackers. The kind you could let explode in your hands they were so small. Not that I ever did.
“Where’d you get those?” I pointed at the bangers.
“I bought them off Ivan at school today. He’s been hanging on to them since Firecracker Day.”
I looked from them to the cigarettes. “Uh huh.”
“I’m going to give Eric a thank you bang for saying stuff about our bike.” The wily grin on his mug said there was no turning back. “He left this half pack upstairs. So while he’s out I’m cooking up a special “Pop Goes the Weasel” ciggie treat. And we all know who the weasel is.”
“Won’t he get hurt?”
“Fear not, they’re too small. It’ll just scare him. Boy, I’d love to be there when these babies goes off. It’ll teach him for calling our bike a mongrel.”
He was repacking one with tobacco around the firecracker, the wick sticking out near the end. He used a toothpick and the flat head of a small nail to tamp it all down so carefully in place that it didn’t get ripped or look lumpy. Then he rolled it carefully on the box to make sure the paper stayed round and smooth. It was like watching Barney assemble a bomb on Mission: Impossible. This was very important work to Alec.
When he was done he mixed the dynamite ones with a couple of regular cigarettes and asked if I could tell the difference. I looked really carefully, even fingered them.  I shook my head. “They’re perfect.” I said. “When it goes off, he’ll know who did it and thump you.”
“It’ll be too late when he does. Besides, he’ll never catch me. I’ll escape through the tunnels in our room.” It was hard to understand how he stayed so optimistic when he always got licked.
He snapped the box shut and we took them upstairs to put them back. Eric was in the kitchen talking with Dad. We had one chance. Alec snuck up to the third floor while I stood just inside our bedroom to keep an eye on the stairs. We hadn’t worked out a signal but I’d think of something.
I heard Eric at the bottom of the stairs. What do I do now? I tried to think of a question to stall him. But what? He was coming right up.
He smiled at me.
I asked, “Do you know when Mom will be home?”
“Next week.” He leaned in my doorway. “You getting tired of corned beef hash, too?”
“Is that what we’re having again?” Just the thought of another plate of eggs and hash made me want to barf.
Eric curled his lip sourly.“Maybe we can talk him into hamburgers one night.”
Alec strolled in like nothing was up. “What’re you guys talking about?”
Eric’s smile dropped into a sneer. “We were guessing how long it would take you to say something stupid.”
“A lot sooner than it would take you to say something smart.” Alec shot back. After Eric went upstairs, he added, “We’ll see who’s stupid.”
“What took you so long?” I asked. “He nearly caught you.”
“I talked with Jeff for a min,” he said, closing our bedroom door behind him. “He’ll support us for the race this weekend. If we can get Kate on board...” He rubbed his hands together. “Oh! Check this out.”
He pawed through some junk on his bed and held up a red pyjama top. “Ta Da!”
“Ta da?”
“I decided to switch the costumes. You know...for Halloween. We’ll still do Charlie Brown as a ghost but not as a manager.”
“Why?”
“You don’t want to have to haul around a baseball glove the whole time, do you?” He reached back on the bed and picked up a blue piece of cloth and his green gym shorts. “Besides, we don’t have a baseball glove, so that settles that. Guess who this is?”
Red shirt, blue sheet, green shorts. “Beats me.”
“Fantam! We’ll paint a big ‘F’ on the shirt and hang this behind for a cape. Then you can put a Zorro type mask on and go as your own superhero! Pretty good, huh?”
I never had a Fantam costume. “Yeah. That’s a great idea. I like it.”
“Soup’s on,” Dad called up. “Wash up and come to the table.”
Corned beef hash, eggs, and home fries. Again! Dad served them up like it was a special treat we hadn’t had in years. No one dared say a thing. We all picked at it like prison food. Except for Dad. He wolfed his down like it was birthday cake.
After supper Alec went into Dad’s study to ask about the race. I waited on the bottom landing and stared at the door with my knees hugged up at my chin. When he came out he was real mad. I followed him up to our room
“Dad won’t budge. He says we should have told him weeks ago when we were planning it. He said this weekend is important for us to go see Grandma.”
“Did he say why?”
“He said ‘just because’. He said we haven’t gone in months.” Alec moaned and dropped on the bed. He was so mad he even shoved Gully away. “Go bug John, you mutt.”
I hugged the dog. “What time does the race start?” I asked.
“Ten.” He got up and started kicking things. Important things. Breakable things. “This is so unfair.”
“Maybe we can get everyone to say they don’t want to go.”
“Jeff will. He has plans for the weekend. So does Eric. But he wouldn’t say so just to spite me. I don’t know about Kate.”
“Maybe we could go up and make a deal with him. I don’t know, clean his room for a month, slave for a day. Anything!”
Alec’s head started to slowly nod. He was scheming it out. His eyebrows crinkled up and he scrunched his lips closed over his braces. He’d find a way. I left him at it and peeked into Kate’s bedroom. It was a lot smaller than ours and always cleaned up. She was sitting at her desk doing her homework.
“You think you could get Dad to change his mind?” I asked. “He listens to you. We worked real hard to build that bike.”
“I told you all along you should have told him.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah... told him.” I mimicked. “Thanks a bunch.”
“Don’t blame me.”
I flopped down on her bed. I still hurt from being beat up.“When kids...you know...when mean kids...when they call you bad things at school...how come you can stay friends with them?” I couldn’t believe I just said that. It sort of poured out like lumpy mud. I couldn’t even look at her when I said it. When I did, she wasn’t looking back. She put her pen down and her face was red. When our eyes met we both knew we were looking in a broken mirror. There wasn’t anything to say.
“Skip it.” I said and got up to leave.
“I...I just do. I don’t have a choice. I can’t live like you - all shy and locked up. You’re like a mouse, scurrying around the school, never making a peep, living in some secret world. That’s no way to live. Not for me. I need friends, even if it’s hard.”
That caught me off guard. I thought I talked all day at school. I told her about getting beat up on Saturday. She was real sorry and almost cried. They should have been my tears.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “But it still doesn’t change things. It’s their fault they’re mean, not yours”
I wasn’t sure about that but she believed it.
The next afternoon, Alec and I took tea and toast up to the big boys. While Alec begged and pleaded for their help, I ran down to the store to get them a chocolate bar. They came outside and we demonstrated our bike on the street in front of the house. By dinner time Alec had Eric almost hooked. He said he’d think about talking the race up to Dad. They even said they might go.
Supper that night was fried eggs and home fries with no corned beef. I was amazed there weren’t five plateful’s of barf around the table. If they hadn’t by now, I bet everyone wished Mom was home.
“How fast can you guys really go on that bike?” Jeff asked.
“I bet it does forty miles an hour easy.” Alec said. “You should see it. Maybe you could time us.”
Dad didn’t bite. We kept dropping hints, like lobbing hand grenades, without actually mentioning the race. After a while, it just got silly.
“Say,” Kate said, “I wonder what you could do with a bike that fast? Do you think it could win any prizes?”
“That all depends on where you go,” Alec answered.
It was no good. Dad read the paper all through supper.
“What do we do now?” I asked when we were back up in our room afterwards. “Dad’s mind is made up.”
“We got to convince Eric and Jeff both to say they want to stay here this weekend,” Alec said. “This kind of stuff takes time. Like water over a rock: before long, you have a diamond. We’ll probably have to agree to do something else for them. Lick their boots or paint the Moon or something.
“All we got to do is get Dad to postpone the trip until after the race. We don’t have to cancel it, do we?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“Hey! Look at this. Sit, Gully. Lie down.” I pointed at the ground. “Gully panted and stared at me. After a few more tries he lay down. “Do you think that’ll win the talent show?”
Alec laughed, not too hard, but enough for me to get the idea.
That bugged me. “You promised you’d help but you never did. The pet show is tomorrow and I don’t have a trick.”
“Relax. Here’s what you do. We teach him a magic trick.”
He popped a wad of gum out of his mouth and got up. “Ahem! Ladies and Gentlemen.” he announced. “The Amazing Gulliver will now be able to tell me which hand is holding the secret item. Could one of you give me a personal item?” He looked around like he was waiting for something.
I gave him a broken pencil.
“Thank you, sir.” He held it up to show the crowd that it was just an innocent pencil. Then he put his hands behind his back and came out with closed fists. “Gulliver! If you would be so kind, which hand is the pencil in?”
Gully poked one of his hands. Alec opened it. The pencil was there!
“Do that again.”
He repeated it six times. Every time Gully picked the right hand. We didn’t even use the same pencil each time.
“How did you do that?”
“Easy!” He showed me the item. “Just stick the chewed Juicy Fruit on the item behind your back. Gully will sniff the gum every time.
I had to admit it again. Alec was a genius!
Just then we heard a loud pop from down the hall. Like a balloon bursting.
“ALLLEEEC!”
We looked at each other. A firecracker!