Cooper’s not a bad boy. According to his dad, Cooper’s theliving manifestation of the motto: Live free or die trying! That’s not how the neighbors see Cooper and his big brother Dylan. They gossip that the Christiansen brothers are hellions; the police no longer even ask for the Christiansen house’s street address.
Nobody’s outside today. “It’s wickedly hot. Even Satan would be sweating,” Cooper’s mom says. She promises to take Cooper and Dylan to the pool when she’s back from the store.
She warns Cooper to behave while she’s out, but fun needs freedom. That means pestering Dylan to let Cooper ride the dirt-bike. On most days, Cooper drives it so fast that it splits the air, scattering the goody-goody girls off their chalk-drawn hopscotch and forcing dog walkers onto other people’s lawns. It’s the old ones who yell they’ll call the police. Most of the time, they don’t.
With Satan sweating furiously, Cooper races the dirt-bike on empty sidewalks. Finally, a chance to see how fast he can take the corners and then brag to Dylan. Anticipation grows as he rounds the first. Cooper lets up on the throttle, leans left, his knee inches above the cement. Instead of speeding up out of the curve, he brakes, hard. The number one neighborhood witch is on the sidewalk, watching her watermelon-shaped dog pee on some flowers. Dylan stops, but something—not fear because he’s never afraid—makes him cut the engine.
A driveway is behind him. He could escape by coasting on it to the street. Only, the dirt-bike won’t budge with the engine off. Trying to force it backwards with just the tips of his toes isn’t working. His legs are too short for both feet to be flat on the ground, so he tilts the bike to the side, pawing at the sidewalk with one foot, burning his big toe. Maybe the sidewalk is as hot as Hell.
Sounds come out of the witch-lady’s mouth, probably the same stuff she always shouts. Once, when Cooper zipped past her, she hollered, “You’re a bad boy.” He laughed then because she was standing in one of the neighbor’s yards while her dog pooped. Cooper’s not the bad one; she is for letting her dog do its business wherever it wants.
She marches toward him, yanking her waddling tub, who, up close, looks more like the fake-fur white pillows on Cooper’s parents’ bed than a dog. “What’s your name? Where do you live?”
“Cooper. I live on Russell Street.” He should’ve answered “Dylan.” If she’s mean, Cooper will tell her off: “It’s not nice that your dog pisses on people’s flowers.” That’s a good plan—and he’ll really say pisses. His dad will be proud that Cooper stood up to her.
“You know better than to be on the sidewalk. You could hurt someone.” She’s closer. Her mouth hangs open, but instead of shouting, her brown-dotted face melts from crinkled-up angry to normal wrinkly, like his grandma’s. “How old are you?”
“Eight.” Her eyes open from saggy slits to giant circles. Cooper probably should’ve said “ten,” but his parents—well, his mom—have warned him about lying.
“Isn’t that too young to be riding that thing?” She looks him over from the top of his helmet to his toes. She studies his flip-flops. If his mom learns he was riding without shoes, they might not go to the pool. None of this is his fault. Dylan told him it was okay to ride the dirt-bike; he didn’t say anything about wearing shoes.
“I’m sorry. I won’t go on the sidewalk again.” He singsongs this like the girls in his class do when they fake being sorry. Another idea. When the neighbor girls see people with their dogs, they always ask to pet them. No harm trying. “What kind of dog is that? What’s its name? Can I pet it?”
When the woman nods, Cooper presses the kickstand down and gets off. He uses the curb like it’s a balance beam to reach the dog, who’s rolling in the grass.
“His name’s Yeti; he’s a Westie/Pekingese mix.”
Cooper’s never heard of those, but he moves his head up and down, pretending. She hands Cooper a biscuit to give to Yeti. Yeti snatches and gobbles it like he’s starving.
Witch-lady’s nicer now; she hands Cooper another biscuit. “Pet him on his back, not his head.” Cooper moves his hand over Yeti’s side. When Cooper stops, Yeti waves his paw, begging for more. “Yeti and I need to go home; he’s too hot.” She prods Yeti with her foot until he stands. “Good-bye, Cooper. Stay off the sidewalks. Be sure to tell your parents about our little chat.”
Yeti looks back as he and the lady leave. Fooled her! Cooper straddles the bike seat. He won’t say a word to his parents. Maybe he’ll tell Dylan; no, Dylan always squeals. Cooper will think about it on the way home.
He presses the kick-start, revs the throttle, and jets down the nearest driveway onto the street. Only Cooper forgets to look to his right. A delivery van’s horn almost shatters his eardrum. Good thing his expert driving keeps him from hitting the van.
“Godammit! You little ass.” The driver’s head is out the window. That’s probably what the guy barked.
Cooper veers left to shoot up the next driveway onto the sidewalk where the lady and Yeti are shuffling back to wherever they live. The lady grabs Yeti and picks him up seconds before Cooper swerves around them.
“You’re a bad boy, Cooper!” That’s what he thinks she howled.
“I’m not a bad boy; I’m free, godammit.” The air pushes his words into his mouth. He gags on them because even he knows neither is true.