Far off on Highway 99, the Harleys reverberated as if through a hollow bone. She clutched her threadbare sweater around her and huddled into the Adirondack chair on the porch, the one her father had built so long ago the white paint had started to flake off. That sound was part of her, she realized, whether she liked it or not. You don’t live six years with an outlaw biker for a brother, waiting for him, praying for him, night after night, and not have that sound change you.
Like an idiot, she’d try to get him to stay in tonight. She’d made dinner for both of them, the deep-dish casserole he loved, loaded with Mexican cheese, and she’d rented the entire fourth season of Boardwalk Empire on Redbox. Screaming, threatening, or crying, wouldn’t work on him--much as she it wanted to. Her only chance was to remind him that they hadn’t always lived every day and night walking on such a thin wire.
But here on the porch, a lonely moth buzzing around the light overhead, she had to face facts: she’d failed. She remembered arriving home from work with the DVD in hand and intending to take the casserole out of the freezer, only to find him standing in their small kitchen in front of the refrigerator looking at the photo of the two of them as kids on a summer day at the community outdoor pool. This was back when they’d competed in swim meets together, hoisting their medals with their arms around each other. Back when Kyle’s curly hair was lighter, showing off the freckles that matched hers. She remembered how her brother had helped her with her backstroke after their coach had humiliated her by calling it “a mess.” She had asked him to do that. She had not asked Kyle to steal their coach’s clothes while he showered, forcing him to sneak out of the locker room and into his truck with a tiny white towel covering his privates. But he had, of course, because he was Kyle.
From the doorway, Ruby observed how Kyle’s long curly bangs, now the color of dark chestnut, fell over his face, and the long laceration that stretched from behind his ear almost to his collarbone, fresh and barely healed. Though their grayish-yellow eyes and burnished golden skin tone was virtually the same, both of their freckled complexions have faded nearly as much as the photo on the fridge. As he cracked open a Red Bull, she noticed his leather Steel Jockeys cut over his black V-neck t-shirt. Her stomach twisted and she felt the lump in her throat grow to the size of an orange. There would be no binge-watching tonight. She knew the kind of night she was in for. She’d been there before, and far too often.
Ruby cleared her throat. He jumped as high as if he had heard a gunshot, almost as if he were expecting one. He spun around only to see his sister, eight inches shorter and as hard as steel.
“Jesus, Ru, you scared the crap out of me,” he said. “Do we have any chips left? I have to eat and run.”
“I made dinner.” The only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall and the insidious whisper of the wind against the windowpanes. “Mexican casserole,” said Ruby.
“Damn. You’ll save some for me, right?” He looked apologetic, but only about missing dinner. Not for anything else. “What’s wrong, Ru?” he asked, genuinely curious. As if he had no way of knowing.
“You said this would be over by now.” She stopped him at his bedroom door. He grabbed the keys to the Harley from the hook by the door, tossing them from hand to hand. Though her arms were crossed, her eyes as icy as diamonds, she hoped Kyle couldn’t hear the pleading tone in her voice, or sense how much of a helpless child she felt. “Ru, don’t do this. Not now.”
“I didn’t complain when you stayed out all night for a week straight. Or when I had to bail you out after the cops busted up the bar, or when you come home with bundles of god-knows-what under your arm and hide it under the toolshed. I don’t question the fact that you’ve owned seven different burner phones this month and I can never reach you, or the fact that you walk around with a crowbar in your backpack. I could deal with that, because I trusted you. You’ve always been crazy; you’ve always dared. But you’ve always, always, always come through for me. But this...”
“Ruby, we’ve been through this,” he sighed. “What, do you think I should be picking oranges? Making minimum wage as a prison guard?”
She felt her face grow hot. “Kyle, I can’t believe you still think this is about money. It’s not about the money. Not anymore. I’m scared,” she whispered. “It’s about this ending up with you with a bullet through your head, or rotting in a prison cell somewhere. It’s about that.”
She pointed to the raw red line marring the smooth skin of his face. It made him look wild, a little dangerous, a man who would do anything. She draped herself across the doorframe. “I can’t do another night like last night. I can’t sleep. I can’t read. I can’t concentrate on anything. I just lie in bed staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sound of those pipes in the driveway. Or waiting for someone to call and tell me,” she almost choked on her words, swallowed, trying to tamp down the tears that were swirling inside her, pushing their way out. “That I’ll never hear them again.”
“Ru, come here. Just one more night. Then it’s over. I promise. After that, Fox has the job all lined up for me. But he needs to know I can be trusted. He needs me to prove myself. He’s an ex-Jockey himself. I’ve got to do it, Ru. There’s no other way.”
Fox Keene had leveraged his skills as a motorcycle mechanic to open his own dealership in Walnut Creek, one of the outer-ring suburbs of Oakland. He was only a few years older than her brother, but he’d taken him under his wing; he was teaching him how to make a living the right way. She’d yet to meet him, but already she loved him. She’d never met him, or even seen a picture--but in her head, Fox was seven feet tall and indestructible. To her; he represented hope.
Now, she repeated his name under her breath when she was sitting out on the porch swing, wrapped in a Shetland sweater and listening to the wind sing in the spaces between the brown leaves of the maple in the front yard of their duplex--the only one they had to call their own since Kyle was sixteen and Ruby was twelve. Somehow, he’d managed to make the mortgage payment and stay our foreclosure. Like many of Kyle’s stories, it smelled fishy, but also like many of Kyle’s stories, it was easier for Ruby to believe the lie than demand the truth.
In Ruby’s head, her words from earlier that day continued to echo. “Kyle, I don’t care about the money,” she said. “We’ll get by. We always have. We’ll find a way.” This seemed to resonate with him. His eyes changed, and for a second, Ruby dared to hope she might have. He came closer.
“You said you trusted me, Ru. Do you really?”
She nodded, choked out a response.
“Tonight’s it. I promise. The deal is going down tonight. After tonight, it’s over. And it’s okay. Fox knows what he’s doing.”
Fox Keene, like an incantation, a charm that could bring her peace; could settle the churning in her stomach she felt whenever she felt Kyle’s engine motor roar to life and she knew he’d be gone for another night, doing god knows what; taking orders from the wrong kind of people--the people that, when her father was alive, he had warned both she and Kyle to steer clear of. He knew what they were capable of. Her father had been born and raised in Ross Canyon. Like its neighbor town, Madelia, it was a Steel Jockeys town then and it continued to be one today. Their stranglehold there was absolute. Yes, she was ignoring her father’s advice, but that was because she was wise enough to pick her battles. As she’d learned in the early days, picking a fight wouldn’t stop his behavior; it would only push him further away, and into the arms of the men she trusted least. And above all, she needed him by her side. She’d already lost so much. If she lost him, she’d adrift in the wind, a boat with a snapped rudder.
One day her mother had taken her to visit her father at work, and he’d swung her up to sit on the counter, and pointed to a single teardrop-shaped ruby on a golden chain. She remembered her tongue had been bright blue from the Blow Pop she’d been sucking on, one of the ones her dad kept behind the counter to entertain the kids that came into the store. “When you’re twelve, it’s yours,” he said.
“Why do I have to wait until I’m twelve?” she demanded.
“Because it’s inappropriate for little girls to wear jewels,” he said with a mischievous wink. “But for young ladies, it’s all right.”
She frowned and stuck her blue tongue out. “But what if you sell it before then?” she asked, kicking her sandaled feet obnoxiously against the glass case. “But what if some rich lady in a fur coat comes in, and says ‘Darling, I simply must have it,” she said, getting dramatic and fanning her face. “I will pay you ten thousand dollars.”
“Okay. A million dollars.”
“A billion?” she demanded.
“Nope. Never. Not for anything. I keep it on display because it’s too pretty to hide, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever sell it. Ruby baby, there are some things,” he said, leaning in close, cloaking her in his familiar scent of jewelry polish, cedar, and the smoke from the cigarettes he sometimes sneaked in the back office where her mother wouldn’t see, “even more precious than jewels.”
Kyle had suggested once that she pawn that necklace; it would be at least enough to cover a few months of groceries. But the glare she’d given him over the kitchen table was enough to ensure he never asked again. It was the only thing she still had to remember either of her parents. Earlier that evening, she’d unhooked the clasp and put it in her brother’s hand, still warm from her body heat. “Take this.”
“Are you sure?”
“To remember me. To remember us. To remember that you have a home to come back to.” She knew it was superstitious, no more than a talisman. There was no magic about it.
She shuddered and glanced at her cell phone’s LED. It was now 1 a.m. in the morning. Kyle had been late before; this wasn’t unusual. And he didn’t always call; sometimes he was in a situation--she didn’t want to think about what--where that was impossible. But still.
Fox Keene’s name was the only name associated with the Jockeys she needed to know; the only one she allowed herself to know. She thought back to when they were teenagers, shortly after their mother died. Kyle had been bringing his buddies home to hang out in the garage. At first, she’d cautiously allowed it, retreating to her room or going over to a friend’s whenever they were home. At the time, Kyle had had a steady job at the local supermarket chain. His bosses, like everyone who knew him, loved him, and they were even training him to be a manager, so she figured it was only a matter of months before he outgrew the M.C. and moved on. But the grocery chain had been bought out by some other company and closed, throwing Kyle out of work.
At first, she’d thought his M.C. meetings consisted of just talking about bikes and girls, but that was until she’d jiggled the handle of the toilet, curious as to why it was still running. She’d taken the top of the tank only to find a five-millimeter pistol floating in the water, the serial numbers rubbed off with a file. She’d marched into Kyle’s bedroom and yanked his earbuds off. “Have all those exhaust fumes in there rotted your brain? It was one of these that killed Dad. Or have you forgotten? Because I sure haven’t.”
“Ru, you’re being ridiculous.” He spun around in his desk chair. “The Jockeys didn’t kill Dad.”
“I’m being ridiculous? You know the cops in this town eat out of their pocket. If you think your precious Jockeys didn’t have at least one of their filthy hands in his murder, you’re more delusional than I thought.” Her father had been killed in a hold-up of his jewelry store when they were children; the thieves had smashed every case, then burned it down to hide the evidence. Afterward, Kyle had managed to hang onto the house, but every single penny her father owned was wrapped up in that store. Call it the scorched-earth approach. By burning it down, they’d not only snuffed out Reuben Clarke’s life, but any chances his family may have had for making a living without him.
“Ru, listen.” said Kyle, closing his laptop and rising from his chair. “It’s not like that. The gun’s not mine. They were just--”
“I don’t care. Get it out of here. Now! Bury it, burn it, dump it in the river. Then tell your “friends” I don’t want any of them coming over here anymore. I don’t want to know them, see them, hear them, or even smell them. I don’t want you mentioning their names. Ever again.”
He held up his hands. “But Ru--”
“Ever again. Got it?”
He nodded and gulped. When Ruby had her mind made up, she was a swirling tornado in miniature, sweeping everyone in her path off their feet. And from that point on, other than Kyle, nobody in a Jockeys cut had darkened the doorway of Ruby’s house. Of course, she knew that hadn’t stopped her brother from riding with them every chance he got. But she’d done enough to give herself peace of mind. Even if it was ultimately only an illusion, it was one she needed to be able to carry on.
Their mother had died a year after the store fire, of sudden heart failure; though she was only thirty-six. Her best friend Ghislaine, who fancied herself a Regency romance novelist, always said it was a broken heart, but Ruby didn’t buy into that sentimental nonsense. It was nothing but a genetic defect, one her mother’s doctors hadn’t discovered until it was too late. And all Ruby could do was make sure it didn’t happen to her. It wasn’t as if avoiding fried chicken and french fries in the mall food court would bring her mother back, but at least it gave her an illusion of control, one of the few she had.
She glanced up at the moon. She knew she should be in bed; she was working an early shift tomorrow at the candle store in the mall where she’d worked since she’d graduated from high school. But at the same time, she knew that even if it meant caking on a layer of makeup to hide the bluish bags under her eyes, she couldn’t even shut her eyes until she heard the sound of Kyle’s pipes pulling in to the driveway. Then she could sleep. Then everything would be all right, for another night at least. Tomorrow, who knew? But she wouldn’t think about tomorrow. She’d trained herself not to.
Once he’d actually idly tried to set her up with one of his boys. “He’s really your type,” he said. “I think you’ll like him.”
“Are you crazy? On what planet is one of your meatheads ‘my type’? You don’t know anything about my type if you think I would even be seen in the hemisphere with one of them, if I had the choice.”
He laughed. “Relax, Ru,” he said. “Nobody’s forcing you. It was just a suggestion. Most girls I know would go for one of my boys in an instant after that Gordon Gekko slickster you were dating. I swear, he must have gone through about a can of hair gel a day. What was his name again? Barley?”
She hesitated. “Farley. Farley Main.” She crossed her arms.
“Oh,” he chuckled. “Right. My mistake.”
“It’s a family name. He comes from a very old, very respectable family. What kind of family does...?”
“Joseph Ryan,” her brother filled in the name.
“Young master Joseph come from?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure.” She frowned. “But he’s one of our family now, and that’s all that matters. But if you’re happier with Michael Milken...”
“Don’t bother,” she said with a groan. She might as well come clean now. “That’s over.” She’d met Farley when he’d come into the candle store, looking for a birthday gift for his mother. She should have been suspicious that someone who came from a family as wealthy as Farley’s supposedly was couldn’t afford more than a set of loganberry-scented votives. In fact, they’d made some unwise investments during the nineties dot-com boom. Farley may have been willing to wine and dine Ruby on his AmEx card for a month or two, but he needed someone who could bring assets to the table. And though Ruby knew he’d appreciated her large, firm breasts, and olive-toned curves, they weren’t exactly something that would send his portfolio soaring. Ruby had only learned it was over when Ghislaine had spotted a photo of him on one of her favorite local gossip blogs, coming out of the San Francisco Opera gala with the blonde daughter of the chairman of the board on his arm. “These guys,” he said. “You’ve got them all wrong. It’s not just a club, Ruby. It’s a family. My family.”
“You don’t need them,” she’d insisted fiercely. “You’ve got me. We’ve got each other. That’s all we need, Kyle. That’s all we’ve ever needed.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets of his heavy jeans, his broad back leaning against the kitchen counter. “I know, Ru. You’re right.”
“I’m always right,” she teased. But her teasing sounded a lot like sorrow, because he wouldn’t give up the M.C. He was in too deep, and they both knew it. All Ruby could do was make herself stiff and unfeeling, like a seawall to break the waves as they crashed against him.
Suddenly, she heard a sound humming up the street, though it wasn’t a bike. Ruby rose from her chair, heart knocking against her rib cage. A car. A nice car. It pulled into their driveway and a man got out. He was tall and ripped like a professional soccer player, his blond hair gelled into a perfect fauxhawk, the tail of his expensive wool peacoat flapping. His eyes were blue and full of pain. She’d only met him once before, but now, almost robotically, she tumbled off the porch and into the arms of Fox Keene, who quickly settled her in the passenger seat of his BMW and slammed on the gas onto Highway 99, heading northwest toward the outskirts of Oakland. She gripped the sides of the heated seats as he guided the car further into the city, into neighborhoods she avoided as a rule; neighborhoods everybody avoided, populated by boarded up warehouses, dilapidated bodegas, and liquor stores guarded by sheets of bulletproof glass.
“The Jockeys. Drug deal gone bad,” the husky-voiced female cop said when they arrived, unrolling plastic police tape, her cap pulled down low over her eyes. The sirens were still coming, and they seemed drown out all logic.
“When has a drug deal ever gone good?” demanded Fox, his arm still drawn around Ruby, who was searching the scene wildly for any sign of her brother.
“Kyle?” she shrieked, tearing herself away from Fox, at the sign of a dark shape on the sidewalk, somewhere past the cop.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step away from the crime scene.” She wrapped one end of the tape around the naked trunk of an oak, her face silhouetted by the orange flashing lights of ambulances and police cruisers.
“Crime scene?” Ruby bent down to the body on the sidewalk, but it was too late. All she could make out was his curly chestnut hair plastered against his bloody face. She didn’t even get a chance to see his eyes as the police threw a tarp over all that remained of Ruby’s family.
“She’s his sister, for God’s sake,” said Fox, behind her. “Have some compassion. Ruby,” he called. “Come on now. There’s nothing you can do for him now. It’s better if you come with me. I’ll get you someplace safe.”
But Ruby just stood staring down at the cold, hard sidewalk. Fox wasn’t talking to her anymore. He was talking to a shell, a hunk of blood and bone who had once been Ruby Clarke. Someone who had once had a family and who thought she was entitled to love, to happiness, as much as any other person. Someone who now knew that was a lie. It always had been.
“Wait,” she screamed. “The necklace! Where is it?” She raced to the back of the ambulance. She frantically scanned the ground, the bushes, the streak of blood and bone fragments that remained, like a sparrow taken from above by a hawk. “My necklace, Fox! My heart! I gave it to him, just for tonight, I--”
“Shh,” Fox said. “You’ll get it back.”
“No, it’s gone,” she sobbed. “I know it. My heart is gone.”
She turned and saw a tall, broad-shouldered and long-legged figure down the street, dressed all in black, featureless, leaning on a hulk of a bike under a swaying fir tree. A helmet was grasped in his hand.
“You!” she screamed. “Where are you going? You stole it! You vulture! You murderer! Don’t just walk away from me!” she screamed into the void. “You did this! You!” Actually, she wasn’t sure she screamed anything. She wasn’t sure she had the energy, or the voice. She just felt so tired. Defeated.
But by then, even the pipes had been washed away into the wind, leaving only the choke of exhaust in her lungs.
She sank to her knees, watching them loading the gurney into the back of the ambulance. Fox bent down with a blanket that one of the EMTs had handed her, but Ruby shoved it away. Everyone she loved has been stolen from her. No matter how hard she fought, no matter how firm she stood, she lost them.
At last, she collapsed into Fox’s arms, burying her head in his chest as if he’d been a tree trunk, just something solid to lean on. It didn’t matter. She could hear them still, like the roar of a jet engine as it was taking off. But it wasn’t a jet; she wasn’t anywhere near the airport. She wished she were; she wished she were on a plane, getting smaller and smaller in the sky, until she was only a pinprick. Because that would mean she was free. Free from the Steel Jockeys, the gang of soulless, violent, trigger-happy thugs that had killed her brother. But she was afraid she would never be able to run far enough.