Ryder took a sip of his beer as he watched Jed’s pale form under the tree. The bright spot of the burning cigarette kept trailing between his mouth and the knee where Jed was resting his hand in a gesture that felt more erotic than it should. Stretched out so that he was taking up half of the bench, he looked incredibly handsome with the plaid gray shirt revealing a white top that hugged Jed’s body. Jed had always been a bit of a pretty boy, but he was able to grow a short beard, which gave him a more masculine look. The blond hair was tossed all around Jed’s shoulders, creating a picture every girl could dream of before falling asleep. Jed could have someone much better than Dana.
The bitch was attractive, she cooked well, or at least she had done the two times Ryder and Jess came over for dinner, and seemed to be the model girlfriend. And yet, whenever she smiled or touched Jed, there was something off between the two of them, and Ryder had no clue what to think of it. Jed might be all grown up but was still his little brother, so Ryder kept a close eye on Dana. They’d met her through her cousin, a shady guy with mafia connections, so that was an extra reason not to trust her one bit. Ryder supposed the bad-bitch persona was part of the appeal for Jed.
Ryder smiled when he remembered the young, pretty kid that suddenly came into his life so many years ago. They first met when Ryder’s dad started a relationship with Jed’s mom, and while the sudden appearance of a younger kid in the house wasn’t appreciated by the then-eleven-year-old Ryder, with time, they became very close. Ryder never told this to anyone, but he was glad that Jed’s mother abandoned him when she split from Dad and left. She hadn’t been much of a mom anyway, and Ryder didn’t have to part from the stepbrother he grew to appreciate.
It was only much later, when Jed started slowly turning from boy to man, that a strange tension appeared and never let off since. Ryder couldn’t explain it, but after Jed’s voice became soft and thick, his jaw became sharp, his chest and shoulders filled, and it was almost as if he became a different person. Where little Jed had been sweet and easy to tease, adult Jed was cocky, rude, and confrontational. Instead of protecting Jed, Ryder now had to keep him from doing something needlessly reckless. With time, he understood Jed’s closeness made him feel confused and frustrated, so he tried not to touch him too much, but he couldn’t keep himself from staring when no one could see.
Jess left to use the restroom, seemingly ready to just ignore the inappropriate comments she’d heard earlier. Ryder focused more on what Jed was doing on his side of the courtyard. He sat alone on the bench, his muscular form slouched, and his facial expression was the essence of ‘broody’, but only now Ryder realized Jed was putting the hot red end of the cigarette against his hand. Each time Jed did so, Ryder’s frown deepened.
He got to his feet and rushed over with a tightly-set jaw. Did the speed consume Jed’s brain enough so that burning himself became his idea of fun? He clearly didn’t want to make it a social activity, because as soon as Ryder stood in front of him, Jed hid his hand in the sleeve of his shirt.
Jed looked up at Ryder with piercing blue eyes that broke many girls’ hearts and pulled on strings that Ryder didn’t know existed in his chest. “What’s up?”
Ryder opened his mouth, suddenly unsure what to say. It had been a while since Jed took whatever he took, and if he hadn’t acquired another dosage, he might be sober now. “Yeah… just thought you shouldn’t be sitting alone like this when I’m celebrating.”
“What do you care? You have Jess to celebrate with.” Jed shrugged and gave Ryder that look he’d had as a disgruntled teenager.
Ryder couldn’t help but laugh. He sat next to Jed and wiggled his fingers, asking for a cigarette. “Don’t be a prima donna. You’re still pissed off over me defending my girlfriend? You’d have done the same if I were talking shit to Dana.”
Jed passed him a cigarette, still holding the sleeve to hide whatever he’d done to his hand. “No. I don’t dwell on some bullshit.”
“Sure you do.” Ryder clinked his beer against Jed’s empty bottle. “Remember that one time when I mixed ginger powder into your cocoa, and you were still mad at me two months later?” He couldn’t help but smile at the memory of Jed spitting the cocoa all over the place and drinking water straight from the tap.
Jed groaned, but Ryder could see a hint of smile on his lips. “Seriously? That was like fifteen years ago.”
“I know. Still hilarious.” Ryder poked Jed with his shoulder and looked at him, irritated that he couldn’t see Jed’s face well as it hid in the shadow. He wanted to pull Jed’s head back by the long, wavy hair, but stopped himself at the last moment. There was no need to get weird.
“Not really, no. I think hemorrhoid gel in your toothpaste was a lot funnier.” Now Ryder could see Jed smile even through the messy hair. Ryder couldn’t take it anymore and rustled Jed’s mane, just like when they were kids, uncovering the straight nose and plump lips surrounded by fair stubble, but he stopped when Jed’s eyes reflected the moonlight at him.
“Yeah. That… was a good prank. Never forgive, never forget.”
Jed laughed and pushed Ryder’s hand away, but that gesture made the sleeve slide beneath Jed’s wrist and revealed nasty red burn marks between his index finger and thumb.
“I don’t think Jess would appreciate a revival of pranks.”
“Yeah, well, she wouldn’t be included,” said Ryder and grabbed Jed’s hand, pulling it hard to take a look at the circular wounds.
“Don’t,” Jed groaned, but wouldn’t catch Ryder’s gaze. It was as if the temperature rapidly dropped. “It’s nothing.”
“This isn’t funny. And it’ll look shit,” sighed Ryder before smacking the back of Jed’s head.
Jed snorted. “It’s just my hand. Must be the speed, ‘cause it doesn’t hurt much.”
“You’ll fuck up your skin,” said Ryder. If Jed were a bit younger, Ryder would have insisted to patch up the burns somehow. He stroked the inner forearm along the line of dots that sprayed the otherwise perfect skin. Of course Jed would do something stupid while he was on drugs. Better this than trying to fly off the rooftop. Ryder needed to keep an eye on him tonight and make sure that he wasn’t doing anything even more brainless.
“Chicks dig scars.” Jed smiled and pulled his hand away. Always trying to turn everything into a joke.
“Not like these. Those are like the emo knife scars,” chuckled Ryder, shaking his head.
Jed’s lips parted, and he hid his hand in the sleeve again. “Fuck you.” He took a long drag of smoke. “Not like the one on your chin, huh? No, that’s super-fucking-manly, ‘cause it’s from a knife fight? Whatever.”
Ryder laughed. “Doesn’t count if you do it to yourself. You could have at least had a road accident, right?”
Jed opened his lips for a longer moment, looking over Ryder’s shoulder. “Jess is waiting for you.”
Ryder looked up to see his girlfriend calling him over with broad gestures. “What’s up? We’re talking,” he responded, but she shook her head.
“They want you in the office,” she yelled, sitting down with a drink.
“Crap.” Ryder rolled his eyes and looked at Jed. “Sorry. Can’t say no to that.”
“Congrats, man. If someone deserves this patch, it’s you.” Jed patted Ryder’s arm.
Ryder lingered for a few moments, not sure how to respond, but in the end, he rushed all the way back to the clubhouse, brushing his fingers over Jess’s soft shoulder on the way. As nice as she felt, he still felt the burn from where he touched Jed. The music was a pleasant buzz in his head as he made his way through the lounge, pressing between countless bodies. He finished his beer before reaching the door to the office and handed the bottle to a random hangaround.
Down the corridor from the common area, behind double doors, Ripper, the prez, and Ryder’s dad, Wolver, who was the VP, were waiting in beat-up brown leather chairs. Both men looked like bikers, the old-fashioned way. Ripper’s horse-shoe moustache gave him the look of an aged male porn star whose prime had been in the eighties. Wolver on the other hand sported a long gray beard that looked fitting with the round stomach hanging over a pair of legs that were average in size.
Ryder closed the door behind himself and sat down opposite them both.
“We have news on the Man from Colombia,” Ripper said in his raspy voice created by years of abusing alcohol and cigarettes.
Ryder leaned forward, his brain sobering up. Was he on the in now? Would he get intel before everyone else? He cherished the trust put in him, and he could see pride reflected in his father’s eyes, but the weight of what he might hear made his stomach clench slightly. What was so important that they felt the need to talk to him during a party thrown in his honor?
“What about him?” Ryder asked, looking between the two older men.
Ripper lit himself a cigar. “He goes by Toro, and he might come over at some point. Apparently, there’s a price on his head, so he keeps delaying to keep his whereabouts vague. Nothing is set in stone yet, but I thought you should know what the deal’s about. We don’t want everyone just running around and yapping about it, because Toro’s a private man. We’ve come into possession of ten Soviet rocket launchers. They’re stored away, and he will come over to view them. We might have a route to get more. He’s paying good money, so we want to build a stable partnership with him. For now, his associates will be taking the rifles we acquired lately, but we want to keep things quiet to the rest of the club. They’d want to spend the money, and we need to re-invest it, not run around with empty pockets, barely paying for the fucking free beers the hangarounds are leeching off us.”
Wolver nodded as Ripper spoke. They were the oldest men in the club, both Coffin Nails for over forty years, and Dad had told Ryder that a lot had changed in the last decade. Some arrangements broke off, and with money drying up, they sometimes had to resort to muling drugs, which wasn’t what their club was about. They needed solid deals, and men who could handle their shit.
Ripper massaged his chest absent-mindedly and looked straight at Ryder. “Love our younger boys to bits, but this club is getting a bit too shitheaded lately. That’s where you come in.”
Ryder took a deep breath and tried not to look too eager, but he was proud to be entrusted with all this responsibility at a time when their chapter was not doing all that well. He’d seen it too, the endless parties that frequently went out of hand, thousands of dollars burnt on nothing. Club life was about freedom, but there were rules even to the life of the free. Otherwise, what they had now could be lost. Ryder’s new position was to be as much of an honor as it was a burden.
“I’ll do what I can.”
Wolver snorted. “Your position hasn’t been filled for too long. You won’t be popular,” he said with a wide grin.
Ryder smirked, even though an invisible hand tightened around his throat. “We’re all brothers, and brothers fight sometimes.”
Wolver shook his head. “You’d be the first one to know that.”
“Go on, get back to celebrating,” Ripper said with a wide smile.
“Just one more thing,” said Wolver and ducked underneath the table, only to come up with a bottle of liquor. He took a long swig and presented the bottle to Ripper, who drank just as eagerly. Ryder could only follow their example as they patted him on the back. The whiskey burned, but it felt good, like new fuel in his gas tank.
He returned to the clubhouse and immediately went outside, seeking Jed, but in the place where he had sat just twenty minutes ago, Bert was fucking his old lady with so much vigor Ryder expected them to fall to the ground soon.
“Okay?” asked Jess, grabbing Ryder’s hand and pulling him closer. He scratched his head and leaned down, kissing her sweet-smelling hair.
“Yeah. Have you seen Jed?”
“Oh, he left with Tom, maybe five minutes ago.”
Ryder frowned as he looked around. A number of people seemed to have gone. The type of crowd that usually hung out at their parties—midnight was much too early for them to leave. He spotted Dana in a faraway corner, staring at her phone.
“Hey,” he called out, trying to put himself into a civil mindset. It made him crazy that out of all the girls Jed could have, he chose this cold bitch. “Where’s my brother?”
She looked up at him, her face illuminated by the pale glow from the phone. “He’s racing again.” Dana rolled her eyes as if it was no big deal.
Ryder looked at her, taken aback. “He’s fucked up on speed and beer. Why didn’t you stop him?”
She blinked and stepped back, as if shocked by his tone. “He told me to stay here.”
Ryder groaned, out of ammo. “Where is this idiot?”
“On the outskirts of town, by the former tanning factory.” She looked back at her phone, and Ryder’s blood boiled when he saw that she was playing fucking Candy Crush.
At that point, Ryder was positive that this woman had no heart beating in her chest. He turned around and rushed inside the building, looking for the towering figure of his father. Even in a crowd so thick, Wolver was easy to spot due to his impressive height, and Ryder promptly made his way through the lounge, all the way to the kitchenette, where Dad was talking to a very flushed Axe, who seemed to stand upright only thanks to the two girls at his sides.
“Jed’s out racing again. He’s doing it in town, as if there were no other fucking roads out there!” yelled Ryder through the music. His brain was itching with the need to mount his bike and go. Grab that idiot by the nape and lock him in the basement for a whole day, until he was sober enough to realize how stupid he’d been. “He’s still on probation!”
Axe waved his hand. “Give the guy a break, nothing’s gonna happen! Let him live a little.”
But Ryder’s father wasn’t that dismissive. “I’ll get Ripper. This is fucking bullshit. I knew we shouldn’t have helped him steal that Honda.”
Ryder nodded and quickly made his way outside. He tried to run past Jess so that she wouldn’t notice, but of course she did. She even yelled after him. He was intent on pretending that he couldn’t hear her through all the noise, but the insistent sound of her light, fit body running toward him in high heels was like the noose tightening around Ryder’s neck.
He turned to face her with a smile he hoped was carefree. “Be right back, babe.”
“Ryder! What’s happening? I need to know!” she yelled, but Ripper and Wolver were already mounting their bikes by Ryder’s side.
“Let’s go!” Wolver put on his helmet and revved the engine.
“See you later,” called out Ryder and mounted his bike, glad to have been saved by the others. His focus was now completely on Jed. He couldn’t believe that they’d talked a mere half an hour ago, and the idiot was already going for unnecessary risk. Racing was fine, but sober, not in a state where one could take cigarette burns without pain.
The three of them stormed through the open gate and into the road, cutting off the way of an approaching car, which honked at them. The guy had to be a clueless moron. No one in their right mind would beep at a group of Coffin Nails if he knew who they were.
Only on the road Ryder realized he forgot to put on a helmet, but there was no time for that now. He quickly passed his father and led the two other men toward the place Dana had indicated. The owner of the gas station nearby never reported the illegal racing that sometimes took place there because he earned a lot on the alcohol he got to sell, but once in a while a “concerned citizen” would call the police about gang activity, and people would be arrested. That was seriously the last thing Jed needed right now.
They were approaching, and already Ryder could see a small crowd and a few people on bikes under a lone streetlight.
Ryder tried to call out to them, but the noise of engines was too loud. Ryder’s stomach clenched when he thought that he couldn’t possibly catch up to Jed once he started. Jed had always had an irrational obsession with sport bikes, and a race was just another excuse for showing off his Honda.
“Fuck!” he growled into the air, but it seemed that the group of spectators and contestants already realized they had been caught red-handed, as no one started the race.
Ryder parked his Harley by a group of other motorbikes and cars on the side of the road and didn’t even look back to Ripper and Wolver as he pushed his way through the crowd.
A big guy sitting across an orange motorcycle laughed loud enough for Ryder to hear him. “Mommy came to pick you up? Is it a school night?”
Ryder wanted to punch the idiot into the ground as soon as he was done with his stupid brother, but Jed was right next to the guy, so he got to act first, jumping off his bike with his jaw set.
“You wanna try me, motherfucker?” Jed yelled, and pushed the guy so hard he fell off his motorcycle. With the last bits of instinct, the guy grabbed Jed’s cut, and pulled him down to the ground, but he didn’t account for the motorcycle between them falling and crushing his leg with a loud crunch as Jed’s whole body weight thumped on top of it. The man howled in pain, his eyes bulged, and he took a swing at Jed despite being under the machine. The scream howled in Ryder’s ears as he watched Jed’s fist smash against the fucker’s face again and again, coming up bloodied, and it was only the scream of one of the women that pushed him into action.
Ryder pulled Jed away hard and kneeled next to the injured challenger. As soon as Ryder touched the bloodied nose, the man let out a shriek and sobbed, twisting his face from the pain. All of a sudden, his hand went up to grab Ryder’s arm when Ripper and some bystander hauled the bike off.
“Serves you right, piece of shit!” Jed yelled, and spat their way, but Ryder could see from the corner of his eye that Wolver had a lock on him.
“Cops!” someone yelled, and like a stampede of wild horses, the crowd began to disperse to their cars and bikes, or even just ran, creating a chaos beyond anything Ryder needed right now.
He screamed out, furious, and punched the asphalt, wincing when the hard surface clashed with bone. “Fuck. Fucking fuck! Jed!” he growled, looking at the vehicles rushing back toward the clubhouse. It was just the injured racer and them now.
The headlights of the police car blinded him for a moment, but then he looked at Jed, who still struggled with their father, like a tiger kept away from its prey. Ryder took a deep breath when his eyes met Wolver’s, silently asking him to keep the crazy idiot back. His heart raced, his stomach crawled with nausea, but the one thing he kept thinking about was that Jed was on probation.
“Let’s go!” Jed yelled at him, but even his speed-hazed mind had to know that wasn’t an option the moment a policeman ordered them to go down to the ground as his partner rushed over to the injured man, already calling an ambulance.
Ryder kneeled and raised his hands, wet with the guy’s blood. He was lucky to have touched it already and be covered with evidence. “It was an accident,” he yelled, looking at the cop, who stopped talking for a moment, before resuming the conversation with the emergency services operator.
Ryder closed his eyes, taking deep, calm breaths. It had been an accident, and he couldn’t have Jed sent to prison. Not with his attitude problems. Not with that pretty face. He shuddered and looked up at the second cop, who approached him with his gun pointed at Ryder’s head.
“It was me,” said Ryder loud and clear, even though his voice shook at the end. He couldn’t believe this was happening. The policeman stopped trying to get all the others to the ground and focused all his attention on Ryder.
Jed’s voice tore through the air. “What the fuck? No, that’s—”
Wolver silenced him by putting a lock on Jed again, but a cop instantly told him to back away.
“Ryder, this is bullshit,” Jed whined, hyperventilating so loudly Ryder was almost in physical pain about not being able to go over and help him calm down. But just as he thought that, the cop pushed him down and pulled his hands back, locking them in cuffs that were far too tight for Ryder’s wrists.
“I’ll be fine Jed. It was an accident. Everyone can see.”
“Yeah, right,” muttered the cop, pulling Ryder into a kneeling position yet again.
Ryder looked over to Jed before casting a long, punishing glance at the victim. It was a gaze that promised a long, very painful death if he as much as dared to suggest Ryder was lying.
Jed pulled his lips into his mouth, red-faced and exasperated. “Don’t do this,” he hissed as his body began to tremble.
Ryder shook his head at Jed, covered with sweat but oddly calm at the same time now that he’d confessed. The world spun around him, and he felt isolated lying there in cuffs. It would be better for Jed this way. Ryder had a chance to slip out of this with a slap on the wrist, whereas Jed would have violated his probation. Everything would be fine. Ryder tried to calm down, inhaling the scent of asphalt even though what he really wanted was to be able to smash the cops’ faces and leave.
He startled when Ripper’s towering presence collapsed to the asphalt like a log. Wolver blinked and rushed over to his friend’s side. “Get an ambulance!”
“He’s putting on a show,” said the cop who kneeled next to the mewling victim, but the other policeman had more sense in him and quickly joined Wolver by Ripper’s body.
“What’s going on?” yelled Ryder, trying to get to his knees, only to face the barrel of a gun pointed at his head.
Ryder’s chest was exploding as he watched the other cop franticly perform CPR, but the longer he watched the more rage flew through his veins. The idiot was pumping his hands below the breastbone, effectively massaging Ripper’s stomach, not his heart!
“Uncuff me, I need to take a look at him!”
“The ambulance is on its way already. Calm down, we’ve got this under control,“ said the policeman who held Ryder at gunpoint. The weapon was ready to shoot, and Ryder became increasingly frantic as Ripper’s weirdly twisted face came into view.
“Please, this is my friend. I’ve been trained for this!” he screamed, gulping at air yet not willing to risk being another fatality of this carnage. Instead, he tried to instruct the other cop. “The heart’s higher. You need to move your hands!”
“It’s true!” Jed yelled, keeping his hands behind his head and struggling to breathe. “He’s got a certificate in first aid.”
The cop giving CPR was trembling himself, and while Ryder was pretty sure the guy completed some kind of course related to this, his nerves were getting the best of him. “Let him do it, Andy! For fuck’s sake!”
Andy gritted his teeth so hard Ryder could hear it, but he uncuffed Ryder’s hands not-too-gently and put the safety on his gun.
Ryder didn’t waste any time and crawled over to Ripper’s unconscious body, immediately getting into motion. With no breath to be felt, he quickly put Ripper’s head into the correct position and ushered the shocked cop to help him. Soon enough, they got into the rhythm of breaths and chest compressions. It felt like ages, but Ripper finally got back to breathing on his own, and Ryder put him in the correct position, all the time monitoring his state.
He could hardly pay any attention to Jed, and it was only when the ambulance finally arrived that their gazes met again. The guilt in Jed’s eyes was so intense Ryder could feel it on his own skin, but for the stunt Jed pulled, Ryder was not about to pat him on the back. Especially since he was getting cuffed again as soon as the paramedic took over caring for Ripper.
“I’m sorry,” Jed uttered from the ground as Ryder got escorted to the police car, but Ryder wouldn’t even look at him. It was time for Jed to learn about consequences.