I was nice-kid cool but Mike Dupree was straight-up bad, so I followed him in pursuit of deep cool. He removed the grill to the crawl space beneath the middle school and climbed in feet-first. In the glow of ten or twelve candles sat a rogue’s gallery of the worst kids in school: the unibrow bullies Rafi and Dirk Nimsky, the suspended Marcus Burgess, and Richard Horowitz, who threw firecrackers at cats. “Wow,” I quipped, “welcome to Club Fire Trap.” Their expressions ranged from hostile to blank, but Mike assured them I was cool. “We were just lifting at Walgreen’s,” he said. “Show ’em, Ziggy.” So I placed the Yu-Gi-Oh! cards I had swiped in my first heist ever on the crate they were using as a card table. They fingered the packs like unimpressed jewellers. “Wow,” I said, “it’s like the Artful Dodger down here, like that part in Oliver Twist when they go through the stolen stuff.”
Rafi winced. “You read that?”
“No. A little. We had a test, remember? But I skipped tons.” They winced at me as if I stank. “I know it sounds like boring school stuff, but it’s a way subversive story about pickpockets in London.” The word pickpockets seemed to spark mild interest, so I continued. “It was written by the same author-guy who wrote A Christmas Carol, which had a great scene about thieves in London meeting in a dark cave or something and trading what they steal.”
“You can be our librarian,” chortled Richard, and Mike asked me to sit down: “Shut up and sit down,” he said. I’d always wondered what guys like this talked about when they were alone. I sat on a crate and listened while they played poker for cigarettes, but no one spoke for maybe ten minutes. Finally Dirk told me, “You should have swiped some mangas.”
“Maybe next time,” I said. “Oh, dude, it was great. Mike created a diversion by pushing this kid, and I swiped these Yu-Gi-Oh! packs and snuck out.”
“You should’ve swiped something we could sell,” sneered Rafi. So Mike reached into his black leather jacket and laid a shiny golden watch on the box. “Twenty bucks,” Rafi said with approval. “Sweet,” said Richard.
“For sure,” I said. “So what do you guys do down here?” It was a dumb question since I could see what they were doing, but I was sick of the silence.
“We read books,” Richard snorted.
“Well, it’s rad,” I said. They turned back to their card game. “This is über-ironic,” I said. “All this talk about libraries, and we’re under the library!”
Rafi blew smoke in my face.
“This sure is subversive, doing all these things you can’t do in school — like smoking and playing cards — right here underneath the damn school!”
Marcus glared at me. “You know, we know you think you’re really smart with your big words and all, but we all know that subversive means underground, so shove it.”
“I don’t think I’m smart! I hate school. I totally hate algebra and the fascist way they teach history, and the gym teachers are über-fascist. I guess English is all right, when you get into Huck Finn and all his wild antics . . . and that Dickens stuff about thieves is pretty cool.” They had all turned away, having clearly decided that I didn’t exist.
I sat there in silence. But after fifteen minutes in which the only conversation was a few words about what they would steal next, and Rafi saying, “The new Captain Crunch commercial stinks,” I nodded at Mike, who snapped his head towards the exit, and slunk off towards the light.