On the day Miriam bit a man for trying to steal her fried chicken, she and her granddaughter, Leaf, watched Mini-Bike Boy jump the ramp. Leaf lived with Miriam, as did Miriam’s daughter, Sadie, who had recently moved back into Miriam’s house while she separated from her husband. Sadie promised to find her own place soon, but Miriam had her doubts, gray, shapeless visitors that seemed to hover between them and cloud Miriam’s eyesight. Twice since Sadie had moved back in Miriam thought she saw a blue dot scurry across the kitchen floor, only to see it later ascending the bathroom wall. It was nothing, of course. One of those things you saw from time to time and knew not to worry about. Still, Miriam let out a cry when she saw the dot scale Sadie’s neck in the middle of one of their meals together.
“What is it?” Sadie asked.
“Nothing,” Miriam said.
“Is there something on me?” Sadie put down her fork and brushed her shoulders. “I’ve been seeing a lot of ladybugs in here lately.”
“It’s not a ladybug,” Miriam said.
“Do you know when the last time you said that to me was? When I was eight years old. I woke up in the middle of the night and found one crawling on my pillow. I ran screaming into your room. Remember? And you said, ‘Go back to sleep, it’s not a ladybug,’ and I said yes it was, there’s no mistaking a ladybug. And you said, ‘Well, they don’t hurt anything. Go back to sleep.’ I wanted you to come into my room and see it, but you wouldn’t.”
Miriam needed a moment for this one. She sipped her ice water and considered this ladybug of Sadie’s youth, still clinging to its symbolic import, whatever that was for Sadie. Anything she wanted it to be, she thought. Miriam said, “Sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Sadie said. “I wasn’t asking for an apology.”
“I should have come to see the ladybug.”
“That’s not what I was saying.”
“I don’t want an apology!”
“I’m sorry for apologizing, then.”
“Jesus,” Sadie said. “What do you think I am? Some little kid who still wants to make her mommy feel bad about her gloomy childhood?”
Well, now that you mention it, Miriam thought. “Was it really? Gloomy, I mean.”
Sadie closed her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m not falling for it, Mom. I’m not. You want to fight; it’s obvious. Well, I won’t let it happen.”
“I don’t want to fight,” Miriam said.
“She said,” Sadie said, “loading her gun.”
“I was only asking a question.”
“She said, taking aim.”
“I wasn’t taking aim at anything.”
“Stop saying ‘she said’!” Miriam said. They ate in silence.
After a while Sadie said, “Well, you got what you wanted.”
Mini-Bike Boy lived a few blocks from Miriam, in a ranch house typically rented out to college kids, changing beery hands every fall, or so it seemed to Miriam on those occasions when she drove by, a FOR RENT sign crookedly impaled upon the weedy lawn. There were hundreds of houses like these in town, Miriam knew, but her neighborhood had been spared for the most part, still enough seniors and empty nesters to keep the local college at bay. Mini-Bike Boy wasn’t in college, though. Miriam had seen Mini-Bike Boy’s mother loading groceries from their ancient minivan; another time she’d seen Mini-Bike Boy’s sister bouncing impossibly high on the trampoline that materialized where the FOR RENT sign used to be. The girl was smoking a cigarette.
On the day Mini-Bike Boy jumped the ramp, Leaf stayed home from school. Said she really wasn’t sick, didn’t want to lie about it, but didn’t want to go to school either, where she was certain to fail a math test without an extra day to study. Could she stay home just this one time? Please? Miriam, who had already decided she’d let Leaf stay after she admitted she wasn’t sick, gave Leaf a lecture about responsibility and told her she could study at the kitchen table. Let her study in her room and you might as well drop her off at the mall. Let Leaf be in the middle of things, where she sometimes thrived. Keep an eye out, but keep your distance, too. Leaf was fifteen years old.
Outside, Mini-Bike Boy assembled a ramp in the middle of the road. An old door propped against two cinder blocks. Miriam watched him from the kitchen window, this kid dragging a heavy door down the street. He wore a purple motorcycle helmet and flip-flops. Leaf sat at the table and drank the peppermint tea Miriam had recently gotten her into. She had a textbook, a notebook, and a sketch pad spread out before her. Sometimes it freed her up a little, drawing something while she studied.
“What’s that noise?” Leaf asked.
Miriam told her.
“Looks like he’s got himself some kind of ramp today.”
“Really?” Leaf stood from the table. “Where?”
“Don’t pay it any mind,” Miriam said, but Leaf had already walked to the window.
“Wow, that’s a bad idea,” she said admiringly.
“Worst part is we’ll be the ones to call the ambulance,” Miriam said.
Together they watched Mini-Bike Boy. He revved his motor at the end of the street and approached the ramp without going over it. Instead, he slowed to a stop, his uncertain feet touching the door, waiting, testing things out. He repeated this several times. The mini-bike made a noise like a chainsaw. The boy circled the ramp, sped down the street and returned again. His helmet glinted in the sun.
“He’s scared,” Leaf said.
“Should be,” Miriam said.
A moment later Mini-Bike Boy circled the block—they could hear him traveling behind their house and around the corner, the neighborhood dead at this time of morning.
“I bet we’re the only ones watching,” Miriam said.
“He doesn’t even know.”
He sped past the ramp again, passing it by. Stopped at the end of the street and revved the bike a few more times. Waiting.
“Working up his stupidity,” Miriam said.
Leaf said, “I feel bad for him.”
“I’ll say something,” Miriam volunteered.
“Be nice, though,” Leaf said.
“What do you mean ‘though’?” Miriam said.
Outside, Miriam walked to the edge of her lawn, a retiree out to check her mail before it arrived. Mini-Bike Boy didn’t seem embarrassed by her presence, as Miriam hoped he might when she first crossed the lawn and saw him glance at her beneath his helmeted head. Poor kid. She opened her empty mailbox, peered inside. “Hello,” she said, and waved to Mini-Bike Boy, but Mini-Bike Boy couldn’t hear her, she realized. He revved his engine and slowly circled the ramp.
“Looks like you’ve built yourself a ramp,” Miriam shouted.
Mini-Bike Boy looked at her blankly.
“I said it looks like you’ve built yourself a ramp.”
Mini-Bike Boy nodded.
“My name is Miriam. I live here.” With my granddaughter, she nearly said, then decided against it. “We saw you.”
Mini-Bike Boy didn’t say anything.
“Do you live a few blocks over?”
Mini-Bike Boy revved his engine.
“I think I’ve seen you over there sometimes. Riding around.”
Mini-Bike Boy looked at her.
“Do you think you might keep it down? Just a little? Or maybe not ride so close to people’s homes? Maybe there’s a track or something like that, someplace nearby?”
Mini-Bike Boy struck the pose of a scolded child, head down, shoulders slumped.
“It’s a little noisy,” Miriam said, but Mini-Bike Boy suddenly pulled away. Disappeared around the corner. Miriam turned to the window where Leaf was regarding her with clear disapproval, but how could she know what had been said? It wasn’t like she’d embarrassed him by saying why don’t you quit before you kill yourself, which was the first thing that came to mind. She’d been nice.
“I was nice,” she said.
Leaf stared back at her and pointed.
“What?” Miriam said, but then she understood. Mini-Bike Boy had rounded the block, returning, engine revving high. Miriam could feel it in her chest. A few moments later she saw him, fingers gripping the mini-bike’s slender handlebars, his body crouched low. Heading straight for the ramp.
“Don’t,” Miriam said.
But he did. He rode past her and ascended the ramp in an instant—zip!—landing safely on the other side. The ramp shook in his wake. The bike bounced and juddered. Mini-Bike Boy rode on, his purple helmet catching the sun, the air charged with a fragrance of gasoline, exhaust, and rubber. Miriam watched him ride away. For the moment he’d been suspended in midair—the mini-bike’s back wheel free, the front not yet landed—Miriam had felt a pleasant terror, as on a vacation morning early in her marriage when she and her husband had eaten breakfast on a foreign balcony and Ron had said what’s that behind you at the very moment she turned to greet the hummingbird fluttering an inch from her face, its furious wings beating her nose the instant before her breath returned.
“He did it,” Miriam said. She turned to the kitchen window. “He did it!”
Leaf’s expression conveyed neither pleasure nor disappointment.
“He jumped it!”
Leaf moved away from the window, returning Miriam to her lawn, the street, and the ordinariness of her heart beating through her chest.
That evening Miriam bought a fried chicken dinner and went to the Laundromat to wash an oversized comforter Sadie had unwisely jammed inside their washing machine. Miriam hadn’t had fried food since Sadie moved in, injecting the house with organic produce and hypoallergenic shampoo. She would get to eat this chicken in private, she realized, without Sadie there to say, “Do you know what’s in that?” the way she did when Miriam and Leaf ate ice cream sandwiches while watching Jeopardy! Sadie had instructed her to buy unscented detergent. Isn’t all detergent unscented? Miriam had asked, to which Sadie had said of course not, Mom, what do you think Tide smells like, and Miriam had said, “Tide. Tide smells like Tide,” and Sadie had said right, so it must be scented, and Miriam decided not to say anything, although she would have liked to say that she was glad Tide smelled like Tide, scented or not, since that was often the only way to tell if clothes were clean. Who wanted unscented cleanliness?
She needed quarters. The machine was at the back of the Laundromat, near the bathrooms Miriam couldn’t imagine anyone using. A mother and her baby were getting quarters, the mother smoothing a wrinkled dollar into compliance. As she approached, Miriam gave the baby a smile, but the baby regarded her blankly, seated in a shopping cart that had wandered in from wherever. A few moments later the machine swallowed her dollars and noisily spit out change. “Jackpot,” Miriam said, not loud enough for anyone to hear. The quarters, heavy in the machine’s hooded dish, summoned an image of the Sunday collection plate, which always seemed to hold an embarrassment of coins. Who were these people who came to mass loaded down with change, like retirees to Atlantic City?
Miriam ate her chicken and waited. The Laundromat had gotten nearly empty, aside from a woman in sweatpants who seemed to make a game of switching a load, leaving the Laundromat, returning, switching a load, leaving, all while talking on her cell phone. “You act,” Miriam heard her say, in passing, “like you’ve never had anyone throw pretzels at you before.” It hadn’t occurred to Miriam to be afraid, alone in a Laundromat, but now the idea seemed worth considering. There was a drop-off window that looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Half the top-loading washers had OUT OF ORDER signs duct taped across their fronts; the first three dryers Miriam tried were missing their lint screens.
She was just about to eat the last piece of chicken when the two boys came in. That’s how Miriam would forever describe them, the two boys, although they were probably older than she first realized: so many adults wore their clothes baggy, with oversized hoodies disguising their faces, as one of these did. Both were over six feet, with chains sagging from their belt loops to their back pockets, which hung level with their hips, their boxers showing. They came in through the front doors and walked to the change machine. One wore a blue hoodie, beneath which Miriam could see a goatee and a pair of lips whose bottom half was impaled by a silver stud. The other wore a gray sweatshirt, his hair in a chunky braid so blond it was white. On his way to the change machine, Sweatshirt kicked a dryer door closed, an idea Hoodie quickly imitated, loudly kicking other doors. “Wait,” Sweatshirt said. He crouched down and pulled a beach towel out of an open dryer. “Oh shit,” he said, “check this out.” He opened the towel to reveal an image of Tony the Tiger flying an airplane while holding an enormous bowl of Frosted Flakes.
“Who the fuck’s that?” Hoodie said.
“You serious?” Sweatshirt said. “They’re grrrreat!”
“Thing’s gross. Some kid probably puked on it.”
“It’s Tony the Tiger,” Sweatshirt said.
“Tony the who?”
“Tony the Tiger. Frosted Flakes. You don’t know Tony the Tiger?”
“We were strict Apple Jacks,” Hoodie said. “A is for apple.”
“Oh, yeah, Apple Jacks,” Sweatshirt said.
“You’d drink the milk,” Hoodie said. “After.”
“Those little pink things,” Sweatshirt said.
“Floating around,” Hoodie agreed.
Miriam watched them shove a dollar into the machine and wondered whether they were high.
“You got to do it all in one motion,” Sweatshirt said.
“You’re not. Like this, see?”
Miriam could see that they’d taped the dollar at one end, doubling its length, making it possible to insert it into the machine and retract it, again and again.
“That’s how I was doing it,” Hoodie said.
“You were doing it stupid,” Sweatshirt said, and then Hoodie said something Miriam couldn’t hear. A few moments later Hoodie walked out the front door, angry. Sweatshirt fed the dollar into the machine and collected the change in a plastic grocery bag. Miriam wasn’t sure if she should call someone; she had her cell phone in her purse, but almost never used it. She was trying to decide what to do when Sweatshirt turned around spotted her. He put the dollar away and shoved the last fistful of change into the bag. When he came and stood before her, Miriam grasped that he’d been drinking.
“That your dinner?” he asked.
“Don’t lie,” Sweatshirt said. He offered his notion of a playful grin. His eyes were like punched holes.
Miriam felt fear wash over her. “Oh, I wouldn’t—“
“Don’t say it is if it isn’t,” Sweatshirt said.
“No, of course I—”
“Don’t say a yes that’s a no.”
“No, I mean, yes. Right.” She could see his yellow teeth.
“Cause we know it’s not a yes,” Sweatshirt said. “We know it’s a no.”
“’Cause we know it’s mine.”
You can have it if you want, Miriam was about to say, when Sweatshirt swung the bag of coins and struck her on the leg. Miriam cried out, more in fear than pain. How strange her cry sounded—she had no idea she still could, really.
Sweatshirt grabbed her chicken dinner.
“No!” Miriam clutched the box to her chest as if it were her purse.
“Give it,” Sweatshirt said. The box began to tear.
Where was everyone in this town that no one could be inside the Laundromat when a sixty-three year old woman was being attacked for a chicken breast and a half-eaten dinner roll? “You can’t have it!” she must have yelled, for that’s what the cell phone woman later told her she said, after Sweatshirt had run through the front doors, clutching the garbage bag and holding his arm to his mouth. After the woman asked her if she needed to use her cell phone. After she’d asked Miriam what had happened.
And this is what had happened: Miriam bit him. With her teeth! With her incisors, still slick with chicken grease. She bit him when he leaned his weight into her. The moment after he scooped his arms around the chicken box, like a linebacker stripping the ball from a rookie back. “You can’t have it!” The sweatshirt’s sleeves were baggy and loose, pulling away from his arm, exposing a weakness. But she hadn’t thought of it as a weakness. She hadn’t thought anything at all, really, save this: she couldn’t disappoint this maniac woman who was shouting, “You can’t have it!” She couldn’t. So she bit him. He dropped the box and screamed. The cell phone woman materialized from wherever, still holding her phone. “Hey!” she said. “Hey!” She held the phone out, about to click a photograph of him, but Sweatshirt turned away, looking at the crazy woman clutching a fried chicken box to her chest. For a moment, his eyes met hers, and he understood: he wouldn’t get her dinner after all. He couldn’t have it.
Well, she had told him.
“You bit him?” Sadie asked.
“Just barely,” Miriam said.
“You bit a human being,” Sadie said, flatly.
“He was,” Miriam agreed. “Just barely.”
They were sitting in the living room, the laundry bags on a coffee table before them, Sadie removing her clothes from the rest. Leaf’s clothes would be left for Miriam to fold and put away, as always. Since Sadie had moved in, these occurrences had cropped up more and more, even when Leaf was in the room, as she was now, drawing something in front of the television.
“Well,” Sadie said. “Human enough to have some disease.”
“I don’t think so,” Miriam said.
Sadie shrugged. “You’d be surprised,” she said.
“Yes,” Miriam agreed. “Whoever he is, he should be worried.”
Sadie gave her a look. “Do you know,” she said, “that it is nearly impossible to have a conversation with you? I mean a serious, adult conversation, like the kind I could have with anyone my age. I think I should be able to have one with my own mother, but when she reduces my concerns to a joke, I discover I’m wrong.”
“Why should who be worried?” Leaf asked. “About what?”
“The man in the Laundromat,” Miriam said. “Your mother thinks I might have given him a terrible disease.”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Oh,” Leaf said, turning back to the television.
“Your grandmother is only teasing,” Sadie said. “She wants you to think she’s amusing.”
“Aren’t I?” Miriam countered, but Sadie didn’t say anything. On the television, groups of teens raced around the world, some reality show Miriam had yet to warm up to. Sometimes Leaf could turn her on to something really good—Miriam was surprised to discover that Leaf enjoyed a good PBS mini-series as much as she did—but other times it was a losing proposition. The teenagers in tonight’s show were always yelling at one another. That seemed the point of the entire show, teens yelling in front of a world monument, then on to the next monument, more yelling.
Leaf had one of her drawing pads out, using the charcoals she really wasn’t supposed to use in the living room, but oh well. Lately she’d been doing some good work with the charcoals. She’d done a still life of Miriam’s fruit bowl that Miriam thought might fetch a few dollars at her church’s Fall Festival, but Leaf wasn’t interested. Miriam didn’t argue and instead had hung the drawing on the refrigerator.
“Give me a break,” Sadie said, responding to something happening on the TV show. “What a bunch of idiots.” She stood from the table and carried a pile of clothes to her room; Miriam watched her go, then stole a glance at Leaf’s drawing and saw she was drawing a person. Miriam knew better than to ask Leaf about it—Leaf was painfully shy—but wait her out a bit and she might show you. At my own speed, Leaf’s actions seemed to say. I’ll come to you, eventually.
After a while, Miriam said, “What are you working on there?”
Leaf showed Miriam the drawing. “It’s him,” she explained, “the guy who bit you.”
Miriam looked at the drawing, a man in dark sunglasses and a sweatshirt. A thin mustache. Two scars. “Wow, he’s really scary,” Miriam said. “But honey, he didn’t bite me; I bit him.”
“But he probably would have bitten me if he had the chance.”
“Oh.” Leaf gave Miriam a disappointed look. “I thought you said he bit you.”
“Nope,” Miriam said, “but it sure did feel that way.” And it did. That’s how she felt, bitten by this strange boy with his bagful of stolen coins. Like he’d taken a little part of her. Had Leaf intuited that somehow? Had she glimpsed Miriam’s secret heart? For there was a part of the story Miriam would never include, in all the retellings. It happened after Sweatshirt had screamed out in pain, clutching his arm to his chest. The moment before he darted out the front doors, he’d looked at Miriam as if she were someone who contained surprising depths. Someone worthy, even, of his worthless respect.
He’d winked at her. Sweatshirt had winked at her.
When Sadie was in kindergarten, Miriam would sometimes spy on her at recess. The kindergarten, a Depression-era schoolhouse with tall, double hung windows looking out across a playground fitted out with a jungle gym, sliding board, swings, and a four-square court, was close enough to Miriam’s home that nearly every errand occasioned driving by, often in the mid-afternoon, when Sadie’s class was outside, playing. Miriam would drive around the playground once, trying to eye Sadie, and then circle around again, because she wanted to and because who would ever know? She’d slow the car into a parking space across from the playground and cut the engine. She’d roll the windows down. She’d hear shouts, laughter, the creak and sigh of swings. The pinging echo of a basketball inexpertly dribbled.
And then she would see Sadie. Sadie would walk along the fence that bordered the playground. She’d drag a stick along the fence’s rusty links, making a noise Miriam, in her station wagon with the windows down, could just barely hear. Sometimes a friend would accompany Sadie, more often, not. Miriam was able to see Sadie’s face, but not to read the expression there, which was neither cheerful nor sad. Sometimes it seemed that Sadie was singing; sometimes Sadie’s lips were drawn tight. Miriam watched, wondering what to think about Sadie’s recess routine: should she be worried that Sadie did not seem to play with the other children? Should she talk to Sadie’s teacher? But no, that would only embarrass Sadie and fuel her anger toward her mother, an anger that already seemed out of proportion for a five-year-old. An anger that was already shaping itself into the puzzle that would stump Miriam for years to come.
So she tried talking to Sadie. She’d ask Sadie how school was today. Fine, Sadie would say. Well, what did she do today? Anything fun? Sadie would shrug and say she couldn’t remember. Nothing? Really? Sadie wouldn’t say anything. How about recess? Miriam would say. What did you play at recess?
Sadie turned a face on Miriam that Miriam could not read. “Swings,” Sadie said. “I played on the swings.” Or, “I played kickball.” Or, “I chased bugs with Anna.” Or, “We didn’t have recess today because it was too cold outside.”
One day Miriam parked her car in the parking pace and rolled her window all the way down. It was October, but still warm enough to go outside without a jacket. She could see Sadie dragging her stick along the fence, could see Sadie’s blank expression, as cheerless as the sound of the stick against the links. When Sadie drew closer, Miriam did something that surprised herself: she called out to Sadie. “Sadie,” she said. “Hi, Sadie. Over here. It’s me, Mommy.”
Sadie looked around until her eyes met Miriam’s. Her mouth was a quickly sketched line.
“Hi,” Miriam said. “Surprise.”
Sadie didn’t say anything.
“That’s a pretty neat stick you’ve got, isn’t it?”
Sadie looked away.
“Maybe you can bring it home tonight and show me?”
Sadie continued dragging her stick along the fence. She dragged it until a teacher called the children inside and Sadie dropped her stick in the grass and ran as fast as Miriam had ever seen her run, across the playground and up the stairs, where a teacher waited at the top, a teacher who ruffled Sadie’s hair the moment she passed inside and then closed the door behind the last child and returned Miriam to the car waiting to take her parking spot.
After she’d finished folding the laundry, Miriam sat with Leaf in front of the television, not really watching, but not wanting to turn the TV off, either. It began to get dark outside; Miriam could just see the lone streetlight at the end of her block, visible through the window above the television.
And then she heard it: Mini-Bike Boy’s mini-bike outside. Leaf gave her a look. “What is he doing out now?” she said. Miriam stood from the sofa and went to the kitchen window.
“He’s out there,” she said. “Riding around.”
“Let me see,” Leaf said. She joined Miriam at the window. They could both see Mini-Bike Boy passing by at top speed, his mini-bike wanly illuminated by a weak headlight.
“It’s a flashlight,” Miriam said.
“He’s going to kill himself,” Leaf said.
“Who’s going to kill himself?” Sadie said, materializing behind them. She held a stack of folded towels to her chest, which she placed on the kitchen table before joining them at the window.
“Mini-Bike Boy,” Leaf said.
“Mini-Bike Boy?” Sadie said. She leaned closer to the window and cupper her hand to the glass. “Who is Mini-Bike Boy?”
“He’s some kid who rides around the neighborhood on a mini-bike,” Leaf explained, but no explanation was necessary, as Mini-Bike Boy zoomed by, the flashlight atop his handlebars bobbing like a smacked antenna. Across the street, house lights began to flicker on.
“Jesus,” Sadie said. “Why don’t you stop him?”
“We tried,” Miriam said.
“This morning,” Leaf confirmed.
“There was a ramp,” Miriam said.
Sadie looked at them. It was the same look Sadie once gave Miriam when Miriam told her she wouldn’t let Leaf wear the tie-dyed halter top Sadie had made for her at an art colony, the one week Sadie had moved away with a painter she’d met online, an event, Miriam gently argued, she probably wouldn’t want Leaf to memorialize. “What is wrong with you people?” Sadie said.
“Lots, probably,” Miriam said.
“What do you two do all day?” Sadie said. A moment later she opened the front door and crossed the front lawn in her bare feet, waving her arms whenever Mini-Bike Boy zipped past. Miriam and Leaf joined her, Miriam noting a few neighbors watching them from their front porches. Mini-Bike Boy gave Sadie a look the next time he passed by, swerving out of her way as she stood in the street with her arms out, as it to say stop, halt. “Are you crazy?” she shouted as he passed by, but Mini-Bike Boy only sped away.
“He can’t hear you,” Miriam said.
“Too loud,” Leaf said, but Sadie didn’t say anything. The next time Mini-Bike Boy passed, though, he’d slowed down enough that Sadie could do something that surprised them all: she grabbed the mini-bike’s handlebars and began running alongside it, shouting, “Stop! Now!” More surprising: Mini-Bike Boy complied. He idled the bike to a stop as Sadie held the mini-bike like a defeated bull. When Mini-Bike Boy turned the engine off and stood from the bike, Sadie grabbed him from one arm and dragged him across the front yard. “What’s your problem?” she yelled, but Mini-Bike Boy only kicked his legs and hung his helmeted head. “What were you thinking?” Sadie led him to the front porch; Mini-Bike Boy didn’t resist.
“God, don’t embarrass him, Mom,” Leaf said.
“Too late for that,” Sadie said.
“She’s right,” Miriam said, and Sadie looked at her with surprise. “Your mom did the right thing.” She looked at Sadie and said, “The neighbors are watching, though; let’s get him inside before you read him the riot act.”
Sadie said, “Okay.”
Inside, they sat Mini-Bike Boy down at the kitchen table. He’d cut his leg somehow—perhaps, Miriam feared, when Sadie had pulled him from the bike—and Miriam handed him a damp washcloth to wipe away the blood. She could see his face through the helmet’s shield, but it wasn’t until he removed the helmet and placed it on his lap that they saw his face, older than she’d imagined, pale as an underarm and crowned with an unfashionable bowl cut, badly in need of a trim, hanging unevenly in his eyes. “Thanks for that, miss,” he said, indicating the towel.
“Are you British or something?” Leaf asked.
“Born there,” he said. “Moved here when I was nine.”
“What were you doing riding around on that stupid bike?” Sadie said. “At night!”
Mini-Bike Boy fumbled nervously with his helmet. “Very sorry about that,” he said.
“You could have gotten yourself killed!”
Mini-Bike Boy flipped the helmet’s shield up and down in a desultory way. “Yes, I know,” he said. “Not something I’m proud of, really.”
“Where are your parents?” Miriam asked.
“Give me their number,” Sadie said.
“What’s your name?” Leaf asked.
Mini-Bike Boy smiled a crooked smile and said, “Last one’s easiest, isn’t it? My name’s Basil.”
“Family name?” Miriam offered.
“How else do you get named Basil?” Basil said.
“We call you Mini-Bike Boy,” Leaf volunteered.
“Mini-Bike Boy?” Basil said. “Bit impersonal, isn’t it?”
“Listen,” Sadie said. She pointed a finger at Basil’s chest. “If I ever catch you riding that fucking mini-bike through the neighborhood at night again, I’m going to call the police. Got it?”
“Mom!” Leaf said. “You don’t have to be so mean to him!”
“No,” Basil said, “your mom is right. I deserve it.” He folded up the washcloth and handed it to Miriam. “Not sure if you want this back, really,” he said.
“That’s fine,” Miriam said. “I’ll take it.”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you all this evening,” Basil said. “I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t. Usually I keep to myself. I’m actually quite shy. My aunt says she doesn’t know what to do with me, but mostly I don’t give her any trouble. That’s who I live with, my aunt. Plus my cousin, Annabelle. She’s a nice kid, but she likes to test my aunt, every once in a while. You know, see what her limits are. It gets tough being around all that after a while, but it’s not too bad. Not terrible. I mean, it was kind of my aunt to take me in and I know it must be difficult for Annabelle to have me around, but I try to be a big brother to her, in a way. I like that. Makes me feel good when I can look out for her. Makes me happy, you know? But sometimes I start to feel sad about things for no real reason and the more I start to feel sad the sadder and sadder I get until it’s just like there’s nothing I can do to stop the sad feeling and riding around on that silly bike seems to help somehow.” He rested his hands atop the helmet. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
“I think I get it,” Leaf said.
“Yeah,” Leaf said.
“Thanks,” Basil said.
For a moment Miriam was afraid Sadie was going to light into him again, but Sadie only stood from the table and said, “Well, we’d better get you home.”
Basil nodded. “Thanks, everyone,” he said. “And apologies, too.”
The three of them walked him to the door, where Sadie told them she’d walk him home to make sure he got home safely.
“Oh, I’d hate to be a bother,” Basil said.
“Too late,” Sadie said, but there was no anger in it. Miriam watched as Basil picked up his mini-bike and walked it with Sadie, Sadie holding one handlebar, from which Basil had hung his purple helmet. She and Leaf watched them in the streetlight, Sadie laughing at something Basil was saying, the night drawing in around them. Later, when Sadie returned from her errand, Miriam remembered to ask her what Basil said that made her laugh, and Sadie said, “He said we seemed like a happy family.”