The group of teenagers who loitered near the bicycle racks after school always chewed gum. They would pass around a few packets—all different flavours, some new and some classic—as soon as the bell released them from the prisonous building nearby. I would have to be quiet and polite to them if I wanted to retrieve my bicycle easily. They weren’t violent to me, or any other student. They were beautiful and some were pale and some were dark and all of them knew everybody. That was their threat: they had connections. In comparison, the lowly bicycle owners had none. All of them had last-year’s-model luxury car from mommy or daddy to get to and from the high school.
I stayed behind after classes ended. I wanted to ask the teacher about the trigonometry quiz he had handed back before the bell. I had barely passed, and though he didn’t leave any remark about seeing him, I wanted to do better. The semester had barely begun and I was off on the wrong foot. He was gruff and short—in tone and stature—and gave me a double-sided worksheet to bring to him tomorrow. I thanked him, left the room, and glanced from the hallway to the confusing shapes on the page while I walked to my locker.
The Rumourmongers stood around the bicycles when I exited the school. Only a few of the bicycles were unclaimed, likely the band players who had practise. I approached the group with my head down, eyes up.
“Excuse me,” I muttered. My backpack hung onto my body by one strap, one shoulder, and a boy a year below me grabbed the dangling strap.
“You’re later today,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
The general rule was to give them as little information about yourself as you could. You answered questions honestly, but sparsely.
“Get into trouble?”
I reached for the lock wrapped around the frame of my bicycle. “No,” I said.
A girl behind me snickered. She said, “I bet he was doing the opposite—being a brown-noser.”
I fumbled and put the first two digits into the lock. The boy tugged on my strap again and I lost my grip on the meal and plastic, sweat beading on my palms.
He yanked me to face him. “What class did you come from?” he asked.
“You any good?”
“Too early to tell.”
The silence among them startled me. They had paused in their gum-chewing, allexchanging glances, trying to assess my response. They knew I was guarding myself. They knew there was something I refused to tell—out of pride or shame, that’s what they were trying to figure out. Both were dangerous. They would shatter my pride, if I were proud, and extend my shame, if I were ashamed. Were they in need of a tutor? Would they want to use me? Or were they the best in their math classes?
I knelt by the wheels again and put in the last two digits, hastily pulling the lock out of the metal bar keeping the bicycles ensnared. I clicked the lock back around my bicycle, swung a leg over the frame, and edged it out from between the bars.
“Have a safe ride,” the girl said.
Were they up to mischief now? Were they vandalising? Was the slandering no longer satisfying? For the three years I had known them—and they, me—we could leave our belongings with them, but never our lives or secrets. Did I now have a reason to suspect the integrity of my bicycle? There were no other racks on the property, nowhere safe if they were screwing with our wheels.
They stared at me as I bumbled off the sidewalk and across the parking lot. I paused, waiting to cross the street, and peered over my shoulder to watch them. They were huddled together and talking.
“Fuck,” I said. I crossed the street and sped home. There was no point wondering what news they would say about me. I’d find out by first period tomorrow.