“You’re not the boss of me!” Sofia glared at her brother.
“Sofie, you’re gonna get hurt,” Alex warned.
“Nah, she’s got it.” Eric was always on Sofia’s side, as much as her brothers would let him be, anyway.
All morning they’d been taking turns jumping off a ramp with their bikes in the middle of the street. As usual, Sofia was the only girl. She watched as Eric knelt down and adjusted the height on the ramp, lowering it a bit.
“I can jump as high as you guys,” Sofia protested.
“No.” Angel shook his head. “Lower it, Eric.”
Sofia sat on the bike, frowning. “No fair.”
Sal watched from where he was standing on his bike. “That’s high enough, Sof.”
She’d jumped off the ramp before, but only a few times when her brother’s hadn’t been around. Eric had seen her once and said she was pretty good. Her brothers never let her do anything. If it weren’t for Eric, she knew she wouldn’t even be jumping right now.
“Alright go for it.” Eric smiled.
Sofia rode down the street, turned around and stopped. The apprehension in her brothers faces irritated her. Sal was the oldest at fourteen, Alex, twelve, and Angel was eleven. She was the only girl in her family, and the youngest at ten. They all stood there on the side of the street. Eric and Romero also watched her closely.
“Be careful,” Sal yelled.
Eric smiled at her, and she smiled back. Eric Diego lived up the street and was Angel’s age. He’d been one of her brother’s best friends for as long as she could remember. Sofia had always been drawn to him, but recently she’d developed a secret crush on him. He always helped her get around her brothers, and had become such a sweetheart lately. Not to mention, he was slowly becoming what her and her friends liked to refer to as a ‘hottie.’
“Yeah, and hurry up ‘cause I’m next.” Romero rode his bike in slow circles, waiting his turn.
Ramon Romero was her brother’s other best friend. He, Angel and Eric were the same age. For as long as they’d known him he’d gone by his last name. He lived further down the street that crossed their cul-de-sac, but on the same block.
Sofia began to peddle and stood up to get more speed, determined to show her brothers she could do it. The bike flew up and over the ramp, and she turned the front tire to the side as she landed for a dramatic, skidding stop. More impressive than she had expected, she smiled triumphantly. “You see?” She looked at Alex.
Alex still had that same look of disapproval on his face. Sofia frowned at that.
“That was cool, Sof,” Eric said. “Maybe next time we can lift the ramp a little.”
“No,” Alex said quickly, “that’s high enough for her.”
“Not for me, though.” Romero adjusted the height to make it higher.
“That’s way too high,” Angel said, looking at the amount of bricks Romero put under the plywood ramp.
“You don’t know about this.” Romero continued stacking them higher.
“Are you nuts?” Eric asked. “That’s not gonna take the weight of your bike. It’s too high.”
Romero winked. “I am the master.”
“Oh, I gotta see this.” Sal leaned his elbows on his handlebars.
Romero finished and smiled, pleased with his work. He got on his bike and rode up the street. Alex and Angel stood on their bikes next to each other, smirking.
“He’s gonna eat it,” Eric chuckled.
Sofia rode over to stand next to Eric and Angel. Eric looked at the ridiculously high ramp and shook his head.
“You think he can do it?” Sofia asked.
“Hell no,” Eric said.
Romero started toward the ramp, picking up speed fast. He pumped his fist in the air, making the guys laugh. Sofia held her breath. The front wheel started up the wooden ramp, but before it hit the top, the ramp cracked and the front tire hit the brick, sending Romero off his seat, and onto the bar between the seat and the handlebars, hard. He crashed onto the concrete, bouncing once before coming to a complete stop.
They all burst into laughter, but at the same time the guys winced at the sight of Romero rolling around on the ground.
“Awe, my nuts!” He clutched his crotch.
Nobody rushed to his aide—instead they stood there laughing out of control. Alex finally walked over to examine the cracked ramp. “You broke my ramp, ass.”
Romero could only groan. Sofia got off her bike and walked over to him. “Are you okay?”
Romero, who had both eyes squeezed shut, opened one to look at her. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Still laughing, Sal rode toward Romero. “You want some ice?”
Eric bent over and helped Romero up. “Thanks for that, man,” he laughed.
Romero stood there, blatantly holding his crotch, with an expression of sheer agony. Sofia looked away. She’d seen her own brothers do that plenty of times, when they went overboard with the horseplay. Someone would inevitably get a knee or elbow to the crotch, but watching Romero do it felt weird.
They all looked up when a car raced by on the street that crossed the cul-de-sac. Not a second later, they saw a police car race by and the siren turn on. Tires squealed and sk thealed aidded and another police car raced by. A thunderous crash followed around the corner. They all looked at each other, wide-eyed.
“Holy shit!” Angel began peddling.
Romero limped quickly to his bike, and Sal took off behind Angel. They all started toward the corner.
“Sofia, you stay here,” Sal yelled over his shoulder.
“No,” Sofia whined.
“Yeah, Sof. It might be dangerous.” Alex was even sterner than Sal.
“I wanna see what happened, too!”
“No, Sof,” Alex repeated, “stay here.”
Eric looked at her sympathetically, but followed Angel anyway. She slowed down, pouting. Angry tears filled her eyes, but she knew better than to disobey her brothers. Though her mom came to her aid at times, their father had laid it on heavily from the time they were just kids. If anything happened to Sofia, they’d all be in major trouble. Her brothers, but most notably Alex, who had the shortest fuse, took it very seriously. The older they got, the fiercer their protective natures became.
She waited until they were around the corner, and started up slowly again toward the corner. She stopped when she turned the corner, but couldn’t see anything. The car had crashed around the block. People began to come out of their homes because of the commotion.
She inched along, walking her bike. The door of the house she stood in front of opened up. Brandon Billings walked out and onto his porch. He was Alex’s age, but been held back a year, so he was still in grade school with Sofia and Angel. He almost never came out, and Sofia had always thought of him as kind of creepy. Part of the reason why he never came out was he didn’t have many friends. Her brothers and their friends all referred to him as Bad News Billings. Sofia glanced at him.
“What are you looking at?” he sneered.
Sofia stuck her tongue out at him, but didn’t respond. She continued to look up the street. Brandon turned his attention also and saw the people on their porches and front lawns. “What’s going on? What’s everyone looking at?”
Sofia stared straight ahead. “The police chased a car around the corner, and I heard it crash.”
Brandon’s eyes opened wide. “Really? So how come you’re not over there?”
He jumped off his porch and walked toward her. “Don’t you wanna see what happened?”
“Well, then let me use your bike so I can go see.”
Sofia turned and frowned. “No. Use your own bike.”
“C’mon.” He grabbed one of her handlebars. “It’ll take too long to get mine. I’ll be right back.”
“No.” She tried to pull her bike back, but he held on. “Let go, Brandon! Why don’t you just walk?”
“Around the block?”
“Yeah, lazy.” She attempted to pull her bike again, but he held on firmly, now standing in front of her with both hands gripping the handlebars.
Sofia pulled hard, glaring at him before she saw Alex ride up behind him and jump off his bike.
“Get away from my sister.” He pushed Brandon hard, nearly knocking him off his feet.
“She was gonna lend me her bike.”
“No, I wasn’t!” Sofia squealed. “He was trying to take it.”
Alex glared at him and pushed him again even harder. “You gonna take my sisters bike?”
“No!” Brandon stumbled back, but managed to stay on his feet. The other guys rode up on their bikes. Angel and Sal jumped off their bikes immediately.
“What’s going on?” Sal asked, walking up behind Alex.
“He was trying to take my bike,” Sofia answered.
At Sal’s glare, Brandon turned around and ran up the steps of his porch. “Yeah, you better run, Billings!” Angel yelled.
Brandon hurried in his house and closed the screen door behind him. “I wasn’t trying to take no girl bike.”
“You gotta come out sometime,” Sal smirked.
“And when you do,” Alex cracked his knuckles, “I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Brandon closed the wooden door. Sal turned to Sofia. “Are you okay?”
“Did he touch you?” Angel asked.
“I’m okay,” Sofia said, and then glanced at Angel. “No, he didn’t touch me.”
Romero picked up a rock and threw it at the screen door. “Asshole!”
They all got back on their bikes and started toward the house. “You shouldn’t have been over here, Sof.” Alex said, and started peddling. “We told you to stay.”
Sofia rolled her eyes. “I wanted to see. So what happened?”
“The guy that was trying to get away crashed into a parked car and they arrested him,” Eric said, riding next to Sofia.
Sofia opened her eyes wide. “Was he hurt?”
“Nah. The crash sounded a lot worse than it aworse tt looked.”
Alex rode over to the broken ramp. “You had to get stupid about it.” He looked at Romero. The guys started laughing again, remembering Romero’s spill.
Romero frowned and rubbed his crotch. “I think I bruised my nuts.”
“Easy.” Sal frowned at him and then glanced back at Sofia.
Sofia didn’t say anything, but felt a little awkward. She got off her bike, leaving it on the driveway and walked in the house. They could talk about bruised nuts or whatever they wanted to now. She was thirsty.
Pouring the juice in her cup, she thought of her brothers. Brandon had it coming. It had been building for some time now. She could hardly believe how stupid he was to continue to be a jerk. She cringed at the thought of what would happen if her brothers ever got hold of him.
A few days later at school, Mrs. Sanders tapped the pointer she had in her hand against her desk loudly. “Mr. Diego, can you come back to earth?”
Eric turned to his sixth grade teacher, feeling his face redden as some of the other kids giggled. He’d been busy staring out the window. Sofia and a couple of girls were on the playground. He’d seen Brandon hanging around, not too far from them. Brandon looked like he was up to no good.
“I asked you to read the next paragraph,” Mrs. Sanders snapped.
Eric glanced down at his book. He hadn’t the slightest idea what page they were on, much less which paragraph. He glanced up at Romero, who sat across from him, for help.
“Page eight,” Romero whispered.
Eric turned the page quickly. He’d been way off, in the twenties, and then looked at Romero again. “Third paragraph.”
“Mr. Romero, are you talking again?” Mrs. Sanders raised her voice.
He turned back and shot Eric a look. Eric struggled not to smile.
“Am I hearing things, then?” Mrs. Sanders pressed.
Romero shook his head and glared at Eric, who was shaking his head disapprovingly.
Eric started reading and quickly realized he’d been had. He was on the wrong page. Romero chuckled when the teacher told Eric he wasn’t even on the right chapter.
“Is something funny, Mr. Romero?”
Romero had a bad case of the giggles by now, and couldn’t even answer her. He looked down at his book, biting his lip, and shook his head. When Eric saw Romero was unable to control his laughter, he started chuckling also.
“Alright, I’ve had enough of you two,” she snapped. “You can both go see Mrs. Powell, right now!”
Even then, Romero was still laugh bi still ing. Eric didn’t even want to look at him. He’d managed to stop laughing. Making the mistake of glancing up at Romero’s stupid face, he cracked up again.
“Take your things with you, because I’m asking her to keep you for the rest of the day.”
When they walked out the door, Eric frowned at Romero and pushed him. “You’re stupid.”
Romero laughed. “You’re the one.”
“Man, I’m gonna be so busted when I get home.” Eric shook his head.
“Not as busted as Angel.”
Eric looked at him, confused, and then turned in the direction Romero was staring. There were two teachers trying to pull Angel off of Brandon on the playground. Angel was furious and continued to try to kick Brandon. Brandon lay there on the ground with his hands over his face.
Sofia stood off to the side, close to tears. Eric and Romero ran toward the crowd. “I told you not to mess with my sister,” Angel yelled.
“That’s enough!” Mr. Manning, the playground proctor, warned. He was finally able to pull Angel away.
Brandon had a bloody nose and a fat lip.
Eric turned to Sofia. “What happened?
“He pulled my skirt up.”
Eric frowned, suddenly glad Angel had kicked Brandon’s ass. He glared at Brandon, wishing he could have a shot at him, too.
They walked Angel away. Eric and Romero followed; they’d been sent to the principal’s office and knew that’s where Angel was headed. Eric looked back at Brandon who was now on his feet, crying, as the other teacher checked his face. He glanced over at Sofia, who stood there and watched as they took Angel away. Something tugged at his heart when he noticed her quivering lip.
The walk home could not have been any more somber. Angel didn’t walk with them like he usually did. He’d been suspended and sent home. Eric and Romero were both looking at an entire week of detention. Sofia was the only one not in trouble, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. The look on her face said it all. She felt terrible about Angel getting in trouble because of her.
They reached Romero’s house first, and he went in. Sofia and Eric continued down the sidewalk. Eric looked at her. Her eyes red rimmed and welled up with tears. Suddenly he felt panicked. He wasn’t used to dealing with girls crying. And something about seeing Sofia cry made it worse.
“Don’t cry, Sofie,” he almost begged. “Angel’s gonna be okay.”
“My dad’s gonna be so mad, this is the second fight he’s gotten into.”
“Yeah, but the first one wasn’t his fault, remember? Even the principal said so.” Though with their school’s zero-tolerance policy, he’d been he’d suspended anyway.
They reached Eric’s house, but he kept walking with Sofia. “You coming over?” she asked. “’Cause I’m pretty sure Angel’s not gonna be able to come out today.”
“I know. I just wanna walk you all the way home.”
Sofia smiled weakly, and wiped her eyes. She looked so sad—her cheeks all flushed and wet. Eric felt like hugging her. He pressed his lips together hard. That damn Brandon.
He didn’t quite understand it at the time. He’d always seen Sofia as his best friend’s chubby little sister. He’d felt just as protective as her brothers did when anyone messed with her. But lately, he’d felt a different connection with her. She seemed to turn to him a lot now, to help her out when her brothers were being too domineering, and for some reason, he liked it.