Rex's Last Ride
David E. Hughes
Rex pulls the bottle from Mandy's mouth and puts her over his shoulder. According to Gordy, Mandy needs a bodyguard, but this feels more like babysitting. Rex pats her back. She burps and spits up onto Rex's faded Harley tee. He looks around the tiny apartment for a rag and finds one on the clean but threadbare couch. He rubs away at the baby gunk but the shit does not come off.
The Sixteenth Annual Nampa Bike Rally starts tonight. Harleys from all over Idaho-all over the whole U.S. of fuckin' A.--are cruising toward Nampa, singing their throttle-throated songs. Clubs that have arrived in Nampa are already having a time of it. Some fat old guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and sleeves of tattoos is passing around a fifth of Jim Beam. A tanned ol' lady on the back of an Electra Glide is whipping off her bikini top shouting "whoooo."
Rex's colors and his beat-up leather jacket hang by the door next to Kidra's coat. He figures Gordy gave him this crappy job because he's the youngest and newest member of the club. Sure, they don't let many twenty-two-year-olds into Fire Apostles, but Rex thought he'd already proven his worth.
When the hell is Kidra getting back, anyway? How long did it take to get diapers and wipes? Rex rocks the baby. She looks back at him. The way she stares, it's like she can talk to him. You know how to handle a .45, but can you handle me? she seems to say.
Maybe Mandy will go to sleep. He doesn't know any lullabies. He sings the only song he can remember. "Sleep with one eye open, grip your pillow tight . . ."
Mandy's eyes start to close.
Guess she likes Metallica.
He could put her down in crib and make the rally by dawn. Nothing would happen to her. As far as Rex can tell, she's just a regular baby. Nobody's interested in her except maybe her mother. But Gordy would kill him if he left the baby alone, and Rex knows he'd never do anything that hurt the club's rep. The Apostles are his family. He lies back on the half-broken yellow couch. The baby rests in his lap . . .
The door bangs open. Rex jerks awake and Mandy nearly rolls off his knees. He steadies the baby, blinks rapidly. "Kidra?"
She bolts the door behind her. "Is Mandy okay?"
"Glad you're finally back. I was thinking I could still make it to Nampa if . . ."
Kidra picks up Mandy, holds her to her chest and starts crying.
"Shit! You're bleeding" Rex says. A huge gash mars her side.
"Take her and go." She holds out Mandy, starts to collapse. Rex scoops the baby into one arm and tries to catch Kidra in the other, but she falls to the floor anyway. Blood covers everything: Kidra, Rex, Mandy. Kidra is making a wheezing sound when she breathes.
Rex's legs feel weak. "I'm a biker, not a babysitter."
"You swore a blood oath." Her voice is getting weaker, barely over a whisper.
"To the Apostles, not you. Loyalty to the club, club before self, and . . ."
". . . and sacrifice all to protect the Daughters of Fire." She lifts a finger, points at Mandy.
"Wait. You're saying Mandy's a Daughter of Fire?"
A powerful bang on the door shakes the apartment.
Rex sinks down beside Kidra. The "Daughters of Fire" is the part of the oath people joke about afterward. Rex imagined a Daughter of Fire as a hot chick in red leather pants, not a goddamn baby. He had no idea how Kidra got it in her head Mandy was a Daughter of Fire, but she somehow convinced Gordy. Since Gordy was Sergeant-at-Arms of Fire Apostles, Rex had no choice when he got the job: protect the baby. Even though Rex thought the assignment was a joke, he'd brought his gun and knife.
Something pounds on the door again. And there's another sound. Growling?
"Go," Kidra says. "Keep her safe." She stops breathing and her eyes glaze over. Dead.
The door flies off its hinges. Someone--no, something--is silhouetted in the entryway. It's fucking huge. At least seven feet tall and bulging with muscle. But that isn't the worst part. The thing has body of a man but the head of a dog, and it glares down at Rex with fire in its eyes.
Rex reaches for his .45 but it's hanging in its holster by the door. Shit.
Rex ducks the charge and covers the baby. Dogface clears them but turns, its jaws frothing and teeth snapping at the air. Its breath reeks of rotting meat and sulfur. Heat radiates off its body like it's a fucking firebomb. Rex fakes like he's going to duck again and pulls the knife from his black leather boot. He thrusts up while Dogface is in mid-leap. It can't dodge fast enough and the knife finds home. Dogface's blood floods over Rex's hand.
Mandy's still in his arms, eyes wide, not making a peep. He springs for the door. He grabs his colors, his jacket, and his .45.
Four more dogfaces crowd the door, their eyes burning.
With his free hand, he draws his .45 and fires four times. Two of the dogfaces go down with yelps. The other two run. He fires again but misses in the dimness. Moments later, howls echo through the night. It sounds like there's a shitload of them out there.
He leaps the bodies and sprints for his bike. Those dogfaces better not have touched it or there'd be hell to pay. Rex built his Harley-Davidson Panhead from the ground up, starting with the chassis and adding a 1949 Hydra-glide fork, original chopped handlebars, a wrap-around SU carburetor, modern disc brakes, and a 3.5-gallon hand-painted tank. He feels a pang of relief when he sees it standing in the pool of yellow light cast by a streetlamp.
Mandy should be wailing her head off. Six close-range gunshots are loud enough to make a grown man cry. But she stares at him, her eyes wide. We've gotta get out of here, she seems to say.
"Here goes nothing, kid." Rex presses her against his belly and zips his jacket over her.
Rex gets on, inserts the key, pulls the choke, squeezes the clutch, and fires her up. The roar echoes through the lot, and the howling grows louder. He never felt so good being on his bike before. He'd outrun those dogfaces. He'd ditch the baby and keep on riding-all the way to the fucking ocean if he had to.
Rex speeds through the late night streets of Boise to Yallo's. On any given night, ten or twenty members and prospects of Fire Apostles would be drinking at the bar, shooting pool, or stuffing their face with Greek food. The scratched tables, dirty floors, and even dirtier waitresses are nothing special, but to Rex the place feels like home.
He glances over his shoulder several times on the way to Yallo's, but he doesn't see anyone following. He no longer hears the howling, but he can't shake the feeling of menace in the air even when he pulls into the lot lit only by neon beer signs. Gordy's decked-out yellow and black Dyna Wide Glide is parked in the usual spot. Rex feels a little better. Gordy would know what to do with the baby. After all, he's the one that got Rex into this mess in the first place.
Rex pulls his Panhead around to the back of the bar and pushes through the rear doors of Yallo's into a blast of heavy metal. The warm air smells like spilled beer and leather. At least twenty men clad in leather jackets and fisting drinks shout to each other. Waitresses in minis and low-cut tops scurry from table to table.
"Rex!" shouts Keith, a prospect still cutting his teeth with the club. He's one of the few guys who are almost as young as Rex. "Put on a few pounds?"
Rex mock-scowls at Keith and unzips his jacket, revealing Mandy, who is fast asleep.
Keith raises his eyebrows. "I knew you liked 'em young, but shit!"
Keith shrugs. "Back booth, I think. Want me to order you a beer . . . better yet, a bottle of milk?"
Rex can't quite keep the grin off his face. "Fuck off." He shoulders his way to a dark corner in the back of the bar where Gordy usually holds court, ignoring the snickers from some of the other guys and the coos from the waitresses.
As Rex approaches, Gordy meets him with a stare that could melt a diamond. The untrained eye might pass him off as fat, but his few extra pounds hide mounds of hard-as-rock muscle.
Gordy wipes some beer from his long gray and black beard. "That Kidra's kid?"
Rex nods. "Kidra's dead."
Gordy slams his hands on the table. "The fuck? You were supposed to protect her!"
Rex's stomach knots. "Bullshit! You said protect the baby-nothing about mom. And you didn't tell me I'd be fighting against a bunch of punks with dog faces!"
Gordy's eyes widen. "You saw a cyno-head?"
"Killed three of 'em, but there's more. I heard them howling."
Gordy shakes his head, like he can't believe his own thoughts, but at least now the anger is gone from his face. "We've got to prepare. The damn things can track anything."
Gordy sprints for the jukebox, unplugs it, and shouts in a booming voice over the quickly-silenced crowd. "Apostles! A club that claims we're a bunch of pussies is riding this way. I think they're in need of a serious ass-kicking. What say you?"
The Apostles punch the air and their voices rise up in a huge cheer. As sawed-off shotguns, handguns, hunting knives, and switchblades appear, the wait staff makes a quick exit out the back.
Rex wonders how the club will react when they realize its more than just another club that's coming after them. Hopefully, they take the oath as seriously as he does. He draws his gun and tries to figure out where he's going to put Mandy during the battle. She might be safe behind a table, or under the bar. A little thing like her couldn't get into too much trouble by herself, could she?
Gordy tugs on Rex's jacket. "With me," he says.
Rex follows Gordy through the kitchen into a little storage room. Gordy pulls two heavy leather saddlebags from a shelf and hands them to Rex.
"What are these?"
"Supplies," says Gordy. "I've been savin' 'em for a day like this."
"Weapons? Ammo? C-4?" Man, those cyno-heads aren't going to know what hit them.
Gordy raises his thick eyebrows. "See for yourself."
Rex unbuckles the claps. Inside he finds a can of formula, diapers, baby clothes, and a wad of cash. He blinks as Gordy's plan dawns on him. "I'm staying here to fight."
"Right. Baby in one hand, .45 in the other?"
"You take the kid and I'll stay behind and fight."
Gordy stares at the baby, almost reaches out for her, but shakes his head and lets out a breath. "Won't work. I'm too old and wanted in too many states. It has to be you. Take her to this address." He scribbles something on a napkin. "It's her grandparents. She should be safe there."
Rex sighs and holsters his .45. Looks like he's stuck with Mandy a little longer.
Gordy puts his hands on Rex's shoulders. "You've done good, kid. Kept your oath. You gotta protect her with everything you have. The world's a shitty place, but if the baby lives, it might be less shitty someday."
Rex shakes his head. "I still don't understand. What's a Daughter of Fire?"
Gordy's eyes grow distant, and a sadness as big as the man himself draws over him. "Her mom-Kidra-was raped by a demon."
It seems so far-fetched. Why should anyone believe it? Yet Gordy seems so affected by it. The story's real to him.
Gordy's far away look vanishes, and he shifts his gaze to Rex. "It's true. Kidra wouldn't lie to me-to anyone, really. She is . . . she was my sister."
"Oh, fuck man, I'm so sorry." Rex swallows. He never would have guessed. "You sent me instead of going yourself, so I assumed you didn't really know her."
Gordy waves him away. "It wasn't like that. She's my opposite. Spent her whole life helping others, never did a selfish thing in her life. She was . . . pure. That's why the demon took her. She came to me after it happened, looking for protection. I told her about our oath."
Revved engines, gunshots, and shouting erupt from the front of the building. Gordy pulls a sawed-off shotgun from another shelf in the storage room and, to Rex's astonishment, several grenades. "Go."
Rex eyes Gordy's artillery. "But . . . we'll finish them off for sure. If I stay . . ."
Gordy shakes his head. "We'll only slow them down, maybe throw them off your scent. You've got to get a jump on them if you have any chance." Gordy pumps the shotgun, takes a determined step toward the front of the bar, then looks over his shoulder. "Do us proud, kid."
Rex looks down at Mandy, who's resting comfortably in his arm. "How come you're so hard to get rid of?"
Mandy stares at him, unblinking. You're not such a prize yourself, she seems to say.
Four hours later, the sun rises over a potato field, and his Panhead is purring. There's no sign of the cyno-heads. Considering all the breaks for gas, diaper changes, and feedings, they make pretty good time. Mandy sleeps inside his jacket, and Rex has to admit there's something nice about having that little ball of warmth cuddled close to him.
Rex still doesn't understand why Gordy wanted him to take Mandy. After all, Rex isn't exactly babysitter material. He got kicked out of school at fourteen, was in more fights than he could remember, and nearly died of alcohol poisoning before he swore off booze. Gordy said Rex was young, which was true. Rex was just eighteen when he'd had his initiation into the Apostles of Fire, two years earlier than the next youngest member. He'd been so happy that day-he'd finally felt like part of something larger than himself. A family. So what if most of the members had a weird religious belief about a Daughter of Fire?
He turns off the highway and up a narrow dirt road that leads to Mandy's grandmother's farm. Rex can hardly believe Gordy might have grown up on this very plot of land. So rustic and dull. A man could die of boredom living in this place. Maybe that's why Gordy thought the baby would be safe here.
As they approach the white wooden ranch house, Mandy starts to stir. No, stir isn't the word, more like struggle. She's trying to get out from beneath his jacket. "Okay, okay," says Rex. He cuts the engine and pulls Mandy free. She looks around as if confused. Then she looks back at Rex. You're not taking me here are you? she seems to say.
But it's the perfect place for a baby. A red barn stands behind the house, a huge tree with a tire swing hanging from it grows in the front yard, and green fields that go on for miles surround the place.
"You'll be safe here," Rex says.
A woman emerges screen door to the house. She places her meaty hands on her broad hips. Rex guesses it's Mandy's grandma. She's got gray hair, but otherwise she doesn't seem old.
"Uh, hi." Rex feels awkward. This isn't an easy situation to explain, and he doubts people in these parts have a natural trust for long-haired, leather-jacketed Harley riders. "I have your granddaughter. Kidra is . . . she was killed. There's no one else."
The woman says nothing and the expression on her face doesn't change. Maybe she's in shock. Or maybe she doesn't believe him.
"I'm sure Kidra's told you something about the baby?" He's not sure, come to think of it. "Anyhow, I'm not the father, if that's what you're thinking."
The woman nods, but Rex isn't sure what it means. This is far from the warm reception he hoped for, but he has to admit it isn't an easy situation to react to. "Can we come in?"
"'Course," says the woman. "I'm Betsy."
Rex carries Mandy onto the porch. "I'm Rex . . . this is Mandy." He knows he should give Mandy to Betsy, but he's reluctant to do it. Mandy snuggles closer to him, so he decides to keep holding her for a while.
The inside is meticulously clean. The walls and tables are decorated by homemade wreaths, woven baskets, little statues of dogs, dried flowers, needlepoint, and lacey pillows. The living room has a small but functional couch drawn up in front of a stone fireplace blacked by years of hearth fires. The kitchen, where Betsy leads them, has white cupboards, an ancient fridge, and brass cookware hanging from hooks on the walls. An old man and a young woman sit at a large wooden table. The stooped and wrinkled man looks far older than Betsy. The woman looks a couple of years younger than Rex. Her blue eyes hide behind thick-framed glasses, and her hands fidget from the tabletop to her lap, then up to her wispy blonde hair.
Rex thinks she's the kind of girl he's never met before and will never meet again: wholesome, a bit naive, and undoubtedly a virgin. She's probably never been on a bike, never heard heavy metal-at least good heavy metal-and never seen an R-rated movie. Although he's sure they have nothing in common, he's deeply attracted to her.
The old man glances at Rex beneath his bushy white eyebrows, then back to Betsy. "Who they?"
The man looks confused.
"The one we've been looking for," said Betsy.
The man's white eyebrows rise on his forehead, and something like a smile comes to his wrinkled face. He finally stands up. "This is a welcome surprise."
"You're leaving her here?" The young woman looks angry and frightened. Maybe she'd never seen a biker up close before.
"Don't mind Mary Alice," Betsy says. "She promised to behave." Betsy flashes Mary Alice a look that's so cold Rex feels like shivering.
Mary Alice nods and looks to the floor.
"We'll just take her from here, then." Betsy's lips bend into a smile, but there's something odd about it, like she's got bad teeth and she's afraid she'll expose them if she smiles all the way. She puts out her beefy arms.
Rex kind of hoped she'd provide some of that country hospitality he'd heard about, like offering him some lemonade and a big slice of apple pie. But old farm folks wouldn't offer anything to someone like him. They're probably scared of him--afraid he's going to steal some of their knick-knacks or rape Mary Alice.
Rex gives over Mandy, who bursts into a full-throated, ear-splitting cry. He moves to take her back, then stops himself.
"I guess she's gotten used to me," Rex says.
Betsy rocks Mandy, but the motion jerky and uneven, as if she's never rocked a baby before.
"Thank you for bringing her," Betsy says over Mandy's wails.
"I'm sure she'll calm down in a minute," Rex says. "She doesn't cry much."
"You'd best be on your way," the old man says.
Rex takes a last look at the baby and strides through the door even though guilt and loss gnaw at this stomach. He has no reason to feel so shitty. Mandy doesn't belong with him. She never did. He's her bodyguard, not her father. Now that he's ditched her, he can get back to the life he loves.
Rex cruises down dirt road leading toward the highway. He waits for the feeling that always comes over him when he's alone on his Panhead: freedom to roam the world, like no one can stop him. Instead, his guts clench and won't let go. He did right by Mandy, didn't he? Those people are of her blood, who better to watch out for her? True, something was off about them, how they couldn't seem to smile right and didn't even offer him pie. But that doesn't mean they won't be good parents. Gordy and Kidra turned out okay--sort of.
But Gordy and Kidra might say the same thing of Rex. He was doing okay despite his dad's ever-ready fists and the games his mom like to play with him in the bathtub. Rex never would have dropped a baby into their hands-almost anyone would be better than them. But he'd left Mandy to these strangers, people who left him with a feeling of wrongness.
He's almost to the highway when he flips a bitch and guns for the farm. Maybe he's being stupid, but he has to know Mandy's okay. He pushes ninety until he reaches the front yard.
Someone inside the house screams.
Rex points his bike toward the front door. He wheelies up the two steps up to the porch and just keeps going, smashing through the rickety screen door.
Mary Alice crouches in a corner of the kitchen holding a carving knife. Mandy cries behind her, and Betsy and her husband, their heads now transformed into lizard heads, snap and snarl at Mary Alice. Rex has no time to wonder about how the lizard heads fooled him into believing they were human. He forces his Panhead into a controlled slide and takes out Betsy Lizardhead's legs. She goes down with a strained hiss, but then the other one jumps on Rex, gnashing with its huge teeth. Rex puts his forearm up to protect his face, and the fangs sink through the leather and into his wrist. He shouts in pain but manages to free his leg and bring it up into the lizard head's groin.
The reptile hisses and lets go. Rex whips out his .45 and fires in one smooth motion.
The Papa Lizardhead slams into him again and Rex drops the gun. He tries to push the thing away but it's just so fucking strong. Its teeth sink into his shoulder and he lets out another strained groan. He tries to kick again but he can't find purchase. He claws at the spot on the floor where he dropped the gun but finds nothing.
With Rex's guard lowered, the Papa Lizardhead shoves his forearm under Rex's chin. Its jaws open wide for the deathblow on Rex's exposed throat.
A thundering boom sounds, and the Papa Lizardhead stops its motion, lays unmoving on top of Rex, who feels warm liquid spread over his stomach. He pushes the body off of him.
Mary Alice, holding Rex's .45, lowers the gun.
"You left the baby with those . . . things." Her eyes, accusing, meet his.
"I didn't know."
"Maybe." She gives him the gun, her hands shaking. "But you came back."
Rex walks to the corner, picks up Mandy. I told you so, she seems to say. She stops crying.
Teeth marks ravage Rex's leather jacket at the arm and shoulder. He's bleeding, but he doesn't want to stay any longer that he has to. He tucks Mandy into his jacket front, heaves the bike from the floor. It's still running, humming contentedly. He mounts and looks at Mary Alice.
"How'd you end up here?"
"Gordy's my pa."
Gordy? A daddy? Rex had no idea. "But how . . .?"
She shakes her head. "No time for stories now."
He nods "Hop on."
A smile ghosts across her pretty pink lips. She slides on the bike behind him, her thighs press against his legs. She wraps her arms around him and Mandy. Rex is part of a little sandwich now, the meat between the bread of Mandy and Mary Alice. He should feel crowded, but he doesn't. He's cocooned by their warmth. Something feels right about it all: the fierce heat coming from Mary Alice, the steady breathing of Mandy, who Rex suspects is now asleep.
He wonders about how readily Mary Alice climbed on behind him. Is it only because she has no place else to go? His desire for her pounds in his chest.
A high-pitched buzz sounds through the humid air. "You hear something?"
Mary Alice nods. "Engines."
"Shit." He revs his Panhead and drops the clutch. They weave through the broken screen door and onto the porch. The buzzing gets louder and he spots its source: motorcycles. It isn't the rhythmic hum of Harleys but the ear-splitting whine of rice-burners. These weren't Fire Apostles.
Cyno-heads stretch out in a long group along the dirt road leading from the highway to the farm.
"We need to get to the highway," Rex says.
"I know a shortcut." Mary Alice wraps her arms tight around his waist.
At Mary Alice's direction, Rex leads his Panhead down a bumpy path through a potato field to the highway. The shortcut gives them a good head start, but he wishes he had a plan. Maybe if they could get to a city they could blend in and hide, but where could a biker, a baby, and a farm girl fit in?
The night air is cool and the moon bright. His Panhead rips up the miles, but Rex can't shake his pursuers. The whine of the rice burners grows increasingly louder even though he's pushing his bike as fast as it will go.
A cyno-head with a bared, pointed teeth and volcanic eyes pulls up next to them and makes a grab for Rex, who dodges and swerves his bike toward the cyno's much lighter bike. It skids off course, hits the divider, and flips. Metal screeches on metal. Brakes squeal. Rubber burns.
Rex looks behind him. A cyno-head with a magnum in one hand is very close. Another twenty or so are gaining.
"Stay low," he says to Mary Alice.
He fires over his shoulder, but misses.
Mary Alice screams.
"What is it?" Rex yells over the whine of motors and tires.
"I'm hit. My leg." She's crying.
Rex pulls the trigger until the clip is empty. He doesn't hit a thing.
"Well, kid," he says to Mandy, "we might have reached the end of the road."
No, there's still a chance. Rex wonders if he's going bat shit. A few times over the past couple of days he'd thought the baby had talked to him, but then he figured he was just imagining what Mandy would say if she could speak. But now the voice is louder and more insistent. They will not give up the chase until they believe I'm dead.
"Did you hear that?" Rex says to Mary Alice.
She shakes her head. She looks pale, close to fainting.
There's an overpass ahead. Jump the guardrail. Go over the edge.
He must be crazy. Why would Mandy tell him to do something that would result in certain death? In his mirror he sees the whole horde has caught up to him. A gunshot rips through the air, then another. A bullet pings off his gas tank.
"Don't let them catch us!" Mary Alice's voice is panicked, desperate.
More shots ring out. The cyno-heads' front wheels are on his back. The whine of their engines swallows the night. It's like trying to outrun a swarm of angry bees. Even if he could swat one or three or ten, it wouldn't make a difference.
Rex glances to the right. They're on the overpass. A concrete barrier protects the sides, but there's a place that's damaged he thinks he can clear. Going over would mean certain death, but it seems like a better option than letting the cyno-heads win.
"Hold on!" he says.
He jerks the handle bar and veers across the lane and on to the shoulder. As the front wheel approaches the barrier, he pulls up and back and guns the engine. They clear the barrier and plunge over the side. Rex and Mary Alice scream. Time slows as the empty asphalt road twenty feet below rises up to meet them. At the last minute, Rex closes his eyes.
They hit the ground with a thundering crash, followed by an explosion. A fireball engulfs them as they skid across the ground, the metal of the burning bike screeching against the pavement and the stench of burning fuel and rubber permeating the air. Rex expects pain but feels nothing. He expected death, but he's breathing as he lies beside his bike-or, rather, a charred piece of it. Twisted, smoking chunks of his Panhead are strewn across the road. In the distance, he hears the whine or rice burners, but it's growing fainter. They must believe that Mandy's dead-any sensible person would.
He pulls Mandy from the front of his coat. She stares at him with her wide eyes, as calm as if she'd just woken from a nap.
"You-you did this," he says to Mandy. "You saved our lives."
Mary Alice pushes herself into a sitting position.
"Mandy saved us," Rex says. "I don't understand it."
Mary Alice's face is blackened with soot, and her jeans are damp with blood where the bullet found her. "Gordy explained it to me once. Mandy is human and demon. It's the merger of opposites. The middle place. Balance. We're that way, too. You're so dark and I'm . . ." She shrugs. "That's why you like me."
Rex's heart beats faster as he takes Mary Alice's hand.
She smiles a warm, glorious smile.
The twisted and charred remains of his Panhead remind Rex of the life he came from. He took the pain of his childhood and forged into six hundred pounds of metallic freedom, but he could only ride it so far. He may never comprehend how he became part of a miracle of light and dark, but he understands little things he could never grasp before. The comfort of Mandy pressed up against his chest is more powerful than a twelve-cylinder diesel. The radiance of Mary Alice's smile is more beautiful than the chrome on a CVO.
His Panhead was gone, but these little things would carry him into the future.