It was a crisp sunny morning as Dad drove Ali and me to school. We passed the usual sights, the abandoned warehouses, crumbling storefronts, and the shady gas station with bars over the windows and peeling beer and cigarette signs along its cinder block walls.
Dad liked to pretend it was nothing, tapping on the wheel, trying to sing along to a hip hop song. He must’ve thought we were all so hip now that we’d moved back to the city.
“That’s where my friend lives.” Ali mused from the backseat, just as we came to a stoplight beside what was either a park or a filming location for an episode of NCIS. Hard to tell.
Dad perked up, found Ali in the rear view. “What’s that, sweetie?”
She shrugged. “Behind that gas station. It’s where my friend lives.”
My dad did this blinking thing when he panicked. And it wasn’t helping his driving. “Um, okay. When did you go in there?” he asked, his voice going high.
“Dad. You ran a red light.”
Ali giggled. “Yesterday, on my bike. I go there lots.”
Dad nearly spat out his coffee. He blinked, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “You um, you rode your bike. Up here?”
My sister loved her Sea Stars bike. Complete with the handlebar streamers and sparkles, it even had the obligatory bell. Ali nodded. “Yep, lots of times. My friend gives me candy.”
The car nearly took out a fence post as Dad swung the wheel to the school parking lot. He looked at me like it was my fault. I shrugged. “I have soccer Dad, remember?”
He whirled around in full panic mode. The car sat in halfway out in the street. An SUV slid to a stop behind us and slammed on the horn. “Ali, now you listen to me. Is this, uh this Mr. Crowbar. Is he like Mr. Pickles, you know you’re old friend.”
“Daddy, Mr. Pickles was make believe.”
Dad wiped his face, and it was like he’d wiped all the color from his cheeks. “Ali. You know better. One, you shouldn’t be riding up on a busy street. And two, never, ever take candy from strangers.”
“Oh, Mr. Crowbar isn’t a stranger. He’s nice. Silly too.”
Dad looked at me. No words. I took over the talking. “Crowbar?”
“Uh huh. It’s a funny name. He’s missing all his teeth. I think he ate too much candy,”” she said with a giggle. “He told me about it when I fell down on my bike the other day.”
“Sweetheart, you listen to me.”
“That’s what Crowbar calls me, Sweetheart.”
Dad’s Adam’s apple banged around like a bowling ball lodged in his throat. “Ali. What does um, Mr. Crowbar look like?”
A big shrug. “Well, I don’t know. He usually wears a ski mask.” She looked at Dad, then me, fixed the sparkly barrette in her hair. “And he smells funny but that’s okay because Mom always says everyone is different. And there’s nothing wrong with different because—”
“Ali, no. Please. Look at me baby.”
Ali started at Dad’s voice. The next thing I knew he was basically in the backseat. It was too much. To look at Ali, her wide eyes brimming with innocence. The car behind us honked again.
He and Mom had fought since we moved here. But Dad insisted on fixing our drafty historic home on the bumpy cobblestone street. Now, as he watched Ali take us in, he sighed, muttered some words to himself.
“Okay,” he said, shoving the car in gear and turning around. “Okay.”
I shot him a look. “Dad, where are you going?”
“What do you mean, ‘where am I going?’ Back to the gas station. I need to have a word with this Mr. Crowbar character.”
My dad, all five feet nothing of him. Khakis, loafers with tassels on them, going to confront some guy called Crowbar. “Um, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Ali squealed. “Yay, let’s go see Mr. Crowbar. I’ll bet he’ll give us all a piece of candy.”
With teeth gnashed, Dad gunned it for the gas station, running yet another red then slamming the brakes as we came to a sea of blue lights in the gas station lot. Dad got the car to the curb, where the police were grappling with a body on the ground. We gawked from the window. Well, Dad and I did, Ali leaped into action.
Ali had already unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door. Now we watched as my little sister, clad in pink, shot across the lot to the scene, where she knelt beside the figure lying on his stomach, arms behind his back.
We rushed after my little sister, who had scurried up and was now talking with the man in custody. She nodded and said something I couldn’t hear, as the police closed in, looking around to see why this little girl was around. The suspect, with one pocked cheek to the ground, shot a toothless smile at my sister. I couldn’t believe it. Beside him lay a ski mask and just out of reach, an old rusted crowbar.
I started for Ali, to pull her away and let the police know it was okay, when Dad leaned in close.
“We probably shouldn’t mention this to your mother.”
“No, probably not.”