Red, white, and blue streamers danced in the wind as the handlebars of a small Huffy bicycle with Spiderman designs obeyed the expert instruction of its rider, seven year old Benji Price, as he bobbed, listed, righted himself, and dove bravely through a treacherous landscape of overgrown yards, poorly-maintained patches of concrete sidewalks, and large, family vehicles which jutted meancincly across his path. He sped down the big hill on Cromwell Road, toward the traffic light which marked the intersection of Cromwell and Winton, cursing his parents the whole way.
“They think I’m not going to the parade,” he muttered. “But I’m going. I didn’t get to go last year, we missed the Labor Day fireworks because Dad was sick again, Mom wouldn’t let us do Halloween or Easter because she’s still afraid of Covid, and Dad wouldn’t let me go see my friends at the Memorial Day party on Burley because he wanted me to clean my room.”
He hit a spot in the sidewalk where the roots of an old oak tree jutted the concrete squares up at an odd angle, pulled back on his handlebars, and left the ground for a full second. In his mind, Benji leapt over giant canyons full of monsters, racing his bike through the jungle in search of treasure, like Indiana Jones. He landed quickly, his resolve undeterred.
“I’m going this time. I don’t care what Dad says.”
The light at Winton Road turned red. Benji pulled his bike to a stop, hit the crosswalk button, and waited.
The Greenhills Fourth of July parade was the highlight of the summer for all the kids in the neighborhood, Benji Price included. It started next to the Community Building, or what used to be the Middle school as his father would sometimes reminisce on occasions when his moods were light, then made its way around the Commons, past the WWII memorial, and back to the Community Building where it all began. Each year, the mayor and several other village leaders would hand out awards for the kids, who paraded their decorated bikes around the commons along with the marching band, the truck from the local fire department, various community organizations, and the large, Red Cadillac with the sign for Humbert’s Meats.
Benji coveted that award. He’d watched from the sidelines for as long as he could remember as older kids in the neighborhood rode their bikes full of streamers and noisemakers round and round the Commons. Two years ago, Brian Woods from up the street had won a huge trophy for decorating his bike to look like a speeder bike from Return of the Jedi. And so what if he blew up the trophy later that summer with a homemade incendiary device he’d made using a two liter, aluminum foil, and a particularly corrosive toilet bowl cleaner he’d had to order from Amazon.
So what? He still won the thing. Just seeing Brian walking home from the parade, carrying that giant trophy, barely able to guide his bike back up Cromewell hill filled Beni’s heart with excitement, and maybe a bit of jealousy.
Last year, Benji had covered his bike in cardboard to make it look like Enderman from MInecraft. He’d finished it a week after school let out, and missed riding bikes for what seemed like half the summer in anticipation. Then, his Dad saw the bike sitting in the garage and tore the cardboard off, yelling at him not to waste boxes.
When Benji started crying, his Dad told him to “suck it up,” so Benji did, taking the broken Enderman pieces to the recycling bin outside.
This year, Benji planned to cover his bike in so many streamers it would look like a Fourth of July Medusa, floating down the street as he sped his way around the commons. He’d saved up all his allowance for two months to buy the streamers (Brian Woods ordered it for him from Amazon. Brian’s parents let him do a lot of things Benji’s parents didn’t), and hid them in his Cub Scout camping backpack so his dad wouldn’t see them.
Benji Price had it all planned out.
But when Benji’s Mom came out of their bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her, and told Benji that “Dad isn’t feeling well this morning. He had a late night last night. We’re going to have to miss the parade,” Benji was furious. Instead of whining, like he usually did, Benji forced a smile.
“Okay, Mom,” he said, and read from his summer reading book until she went back into the bedroom. As soon as the door closed, he grabbed his backpack and sprinted outside to jump on his bike.
The light at Winton Road changed green and Benji Price made his way across the busy, six-lane road.
At first, he was afraid. He’d never before ventured this far from home by himself, and the huge, rumbling cars, waiting on Winton Road for their light to change green, seemed more daunting than the treacherous path down Cromwell hill that got him here. For a moment, Benji thought of turning back, but he closed his eyes and pushed forward.
“I’m going,” he said, and that was that.
Benji’s foot found the upramp on the sidewalk opposite Cromwell. He opened his eyes and watched as the cars behind him took their cue from the traffic light and made their way to and from on Winton.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said to himself.
Benji rode his bike past Our Lady of the Rosary church, and stood at the crosswalk in front of the Greenhills Community Building. One more road and he was there. A few more steps and he’d be ready to start setting up his bike for the parade.
A police cruiser stopped in front of him, and rolled down the window.
“Hello, there son. How ya doin’?”
“Whatch’ya up to?”
“I’m taking my bike to the community center to get it ready for the Fourth of July Parade.”
“Are you, now?”
“Uh huh. My friend Brian Woods won the trophy two years ago, but he blew it up in his back yard with a bomb he made from the internet.”
“Is that so?”
Benji wondered if maybe he’d say something bad, but he continued.
“Yeah, and this year, I’m going to win. I’ve got a backpack full of streamers and my friend, Jason, says he has a wrestling outfit he’s going to let me use.”
“Parade doesn’t start for another four hour, son. You know that?”
“No. Where are your parents?”
Benji lowered his head. He’d seen enough t.v. shows to know where this was heeded.
“Back at home,” he said.
“Why don’t you hop in the car and I’ll take you there? I’m sure they’d want to see their big boy win his first trophy.”
“Okay,” Benji sighed. His shoulders slumped. One more year. One more missed opportunity. And, now, because the cops were bringing him home, his parents would be mad. Dad would wait for the cops to leave, and then the yelling would begin.
“What’s your name, son?” the officer asked.
“Good name. My name’s Officer Riley. But you can call me Ken.”
Benji ws silent. He looked out the window as the trees and houses he’d just passed on his bike, reversed themselves toward his house. After a moment of silence, Officer Riley glanced in his rearview mirror.
“You got a scratch on your forehead, I see.”
“Yep,” Benji said.
“How’d that happen?”
“Fell off my bike.”
“Did you, now?”
“Yep,” Benji lied. He didn’t like to talk about the scratches. Or any other injuries for that matter.
“Well, that’s a surprise,” Officer Riley said. “I’ve seen you. You seem to have a good handle on things, riding that thing up and down Cromwell hill.”
Officer Riley made it to the top of Cromwell turning left onto Andover Street.
“Your parents home?”
“Yeah, but Dad’s still asleep.”
“He sleep a lot?”
“He ever get mad at you?”
Benji Price trie to change the subject.
“That’s my house right there, Office Riley.”
“Mr. Ken.” Benji tried to open the door, but the handle wouldn’t budge. Once you’re in the back seat of a police cruiser, you’re in. At least until they let you out.
“That’s my house right there. I can ride home from here.”
Officer Riley did not respond. He drove up to Benji Price’s house, parked in the driveway, got out, and let Benji climb out as well. He opened the trunk to get Beni’s bike. Benji grabbed the bike and ran to the side of the house to hide it. By the time he got back, Officer Riley had already rung the doorbell.
“Officer Riley … Ken … please don’t tell my dad I rode my bike across Winton Road. He’ll be mad, and when Dad gets mad, he…”
The door opened. Benjamin Price Sr. stood in the doorway, his grey hair a mop of unkept thistles, hanging down over his eyebrows. He wore plaid pajama pants, a faded Dave Matthews Band t-shirt, and a pair of pink bunny slippers. Officer Riley took a step back and covered his nose. Benjamin Riley smelled as if he’d been rolled in wet mulch and left baking ni the hot sun for days.
“What?” said Benjamin Price Sr.
“Found your son down the road a piece. Seems he’s a bit excited for the parade today. Will you folks be joining him?”
Benjamin Price saw Ben Jr (aka “Benji”) cowering behind Offcer Riley. HIs eyes grew wide and he stepped forward.
“There you are! I told you we wasn’t going this year, you little son of a …” Benjamin Price looked at the stern expression on Officer Riley’s face and corrected himself. “.. young man. I told you I wasn’t feeling well. And neither is your mother.”
Angela Price stood behind Benjamin Price Sr with her eyes lowered. When she glanced up, both Benji and Officer Riley could see the discoloration on her cheek hidden by hastily applied makeup.
Benjamin Price Sr stepped out onto the porch, grabbing Benji firmly on his left arm. Benji winced.
“Thank you for bringing him home, officer. I’ll make sure to teach him a lesson. Have a nice day.”
Benjamin Price Sr moved Benji toward the door. Officer Riley placed a hand on Mr Price’s shoulder.
“Hold on a minute. Let’s chat for a moment.”
“Mrs. Price. I can see the marks on your face. How did that happen?”
“Ran into a door,” she said, never lifting her head.
“Is that so?”
“See!” said Benjamin Price Sr. “Everything is fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, officer.” Mr Price tried to pull Benji inside, but Officer Ken Riley held firm.
“Mrs. Price. You know what’s going to happen to your son if I leave here, right?”
Mrs. Price did not speak.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the scratch on his head, the mark on the back of his neck, and the way he favors his left ankle.”
“That was a bike accident!” Mr Price said. Benji screamed as his fathers fingers dug further into his arm.
“Mrs. Price, this isn’t the first time I’ve come here to visit you. And you know it won’t be the last. What do you say this time you speak up. It can all stop right now if you just say the word.”
“I’ve heard enough!” Benjamin Price threw his son into the house through the doorway and stuck a finger in Officer Riley’s face. “How DARE you accuse of …”
“Accuse you of what?” Officer Riley was calm in his questioning.
“You know what you’re accusing me of. Get off my porch, Officer, or I’ll have your badge.”
“She has nothing to say.”
“He hits her,” Benji Price said. All three adults looked at Benji in surprise. “When he gets drunk or when he’s mad or sometimes just because. He hits her. And he hits me, too. These scratches aren’t from a bike accident. He shoved me into a doorframe yesterday when I asked if we could go to the fourth of July Parade. It isn’t as swollen as it was yesterday, but it’s still there.”
“What?” said Benjamin Price Sr. “He’s making it all up. You know how kids are.”
“Mrs. Price? Is this true?”
“Yes,” she said, then raised her head and said the words she had wanted to say for years, but had never had the courage to speak aloud.
“Help?” she said.
An hour and a half later, Benjamin Price Sr was in the back of another police cruiser, on his way to the Hamilton County Detention Center, and Officer Riley helped Benji Price and his mother, Angela, load some clothes and a few of their belongings, including Beji’s bike, into the trunk of his cruiser.
“My Mom says we can stay with her as long as we need,” Mrs. Price began. “After that…”
“After that you’ll be free,” Officer Riley said.
“After that, we’ll be free,” Angela said, a smile washed over her face. She turned to Benji. “Should we get going? Grandma can’t wait to see you.”
“There’s one more stop we need to make,” Officer Riley said.
That afternoon, Benji Price rode his bike in the Greenhills Village Fourth of July Parade. The streamers poured out behind him in wild pandemonium. And for the rest of his life, whenever he thought of what it meant to be free, he would remember this exquisite joy.