(UN)FAIR WARNING • by Brian Borrough

When Benny first spied the new bicycle in the kitchen, the surprise so blindsided him, even on his birthday, that he thought it was a cruel joke. He’d grown to expect his dreams to stay out of reach, yet there beside the pantry blazed one dream, in Iron Man red: a Rampar BMX. His mom said it was a reward for earning his Webelos badge, getting good grades, and helping around the house. Besides, she said, you’re only ten once. How they’d afforded it he never knew for sure; his Uncle Jack owned the sporting goods store and probably helped them on price.

The Rampar’s knobby tires bullied any terrain — tall grass, curbs, buckled sidewalks, even the towpath’s dusty gravel — and the two holes in the head tube gusset were a mystery to solve. His older sister called the bike his Virtuous Cycle because it seemed to feed him power; the harder he pedaled, the louder its tires hummed, and the stronger he grew. Far off places were suddenly in reach, as if his freedom had a growth spurt. The wind in his face was his speedometer, and sometimes when he looked down he could swear the tires weren’t touching earth. That first week, he caught or outran countless villains, and every day he returned home after sundown, parched and spent, to lectures and threats of grounding. None got in. Benny would apologize, make promises between slurps of apple juice, and go practice wheelies on the driveway in the semicircle of flickering porch light.

The next weekend was Benny’s coronation. Dozens of kids saw the Rampar at the park, teen center, or strip mall, and all were green — even the Kodak kids who seemingly got new bikes every year. After zooming around the mall parking lot in a victory lap, he pulled a perfect wheelie, leaned his Rampar against a mail collection box, then darted into Rite Aid for a Three Musketeers. Stepping back outside, Benny’s vision crazed.

Time. Stopped. No bike. To the left. Older boy on the Rampar. Torso stiff, legs grinding, like climbing a snowbank. The Rampar swayed beneath the boy, his bodyweight bearing on each stealthy downstroke.

Slow. Close. Twenty feet. Black Sabbath tee. Not a kid from around. Thirty feet; so calm, composed — already his bike.

“Hey!” Benny screamed. The older boy glanced over his shoulder, a red face of terror, then shot off — all speed, no noise. The candy bar fell from Benny’s hand, and he chased the older boy across the parking lot, coursing between parked cars and screaming, but the louder Benny screamed, the more frenzied the pedaling. Benny slowed, his feet dragging on asphalt. He couldn’t catch the Rampar. It fed the older boy power too.

Dismayed and reeling, Benny ran home, not to the village police station down the street. Later that day, an officer came to Benny’s house and took a report. Hunched in a kitchen chair, his elbows on his knees, the officer set low expectations: talk of paint jobs and bastard-cut files and a quick sale in another town. Benny pictured his Rampar rattle-can black, stripped of pads, serial number scraped clean. Maybe homeowner’s insurance would cover it? the officer asked. Benny’s mom stared at the warped vinyl floor and shook her head.

Benny skipped dinner and breakfast. Little mattered to him beyond blame, and much of that circled around his yell. He would’ve caught the kid off guard if Benny had silently sprinted, pounced, and scrapped. Instead he gave the thief an unlocked bike and a scream to fuel his escape. Benny blamed himself, and he was reduced to walking again, each footstep a sensory reminder of his lost freedom.

In the days that followed, he shambled past many parked bikes, some unlocked — but never the nice ones, those were always locked. He also noticed, though, that the nicest bikes didn’t always have the best locks. Later that week, he borrowed a pair of lineman’s pliers from his neighbor’s tool shed and started snipping and cutting things — paper clips, an old key ring pried from asphalt in the mall parking lot, the chain link fence at the teen center; he even tried to clip the guy-wires on a utility pole behind the police station. And still he walked everywhere, quiet and hollow.

A week before school started, Benny eyed the next-best bike at the bowling alley across town. Blue would have to do. Its front tire and frame were locked to the end of the bike rack, just as they had been the last two Saturdays. Benny glanced around and then tugged at the cheap cable lock with one hand, his other clenching the lineman’s pliers in his sweatshirt pocket. He had decided that if the bike was still there after sunset, he’d ride it home.

In the cool purple dusk, Benny squeezed and torqued the pliers until the cable snapped. The ride home seemed to last forever; his pulse pounded in his ears, and every set of approaching headlights wrenched his guts. When a siren and flashing lights closed in from behind, he pissed himself a little, but didn’t realize it until after the ambulance tore past him. He hid the blue bike deep in the dense cattails in the woods near home for a couple of days and brought it out after he had stolen a good lock from the hardware store. Over dinner he told his mom a classmate with a broken leg had lent him the bike. She believed him, but not without hesitation. As time passed, she probed the lie with more questions, and when he painted the bike red, she asked him outright if he had stolen it. Benny answered with more lies and a new indifference; if she took it away, he knew how to get another.

Brian Borrough lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. He is a consultant, creative writer, and adult literacy tutor. “(Un)fair Warning” is his first published work.

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