Authors: Shona Husk
For my niece, who is convinced she saw the ghost of a motorcyclist in her room.
“Stop being such a snob.” Ruby took a swig of her cherry red alcopop and leaned in to kiss him.
Tate turned his head away and her lips connected with his cheek instead. She was drunk. One too many drinking games. The same ones they used to play in high school. Trouble was they weren’t in high school anymore.
“Ruby, I think you’ve had enough.” Tate eased her arms from around him.
“Come on, have some fun.” She pouted, her lips stained red.
He looked around the room. Half the people he didn’t know, the other half were his friends by default because they were Ruby’s friends. He winced, they had all been friends once, but in the last year he’d realized two things. They hadn’t changed and he had, and he didn’t want to spend his weekend drunk and then hung over when he had assignments to do and projects to complete. At first the drift away from the group had been accidental because he’d been busy with college, but now it was more deliberate. And Ruby had become caught in the middle.
Tate shook his head. “I’m done for the night.” He was done with this, all of it. He glanced at Ruby and realized he was done with her. That hurt to even think, but his heart hadn’t been in this relationship for months.
“What? Have another beer. The party is just starting.” She took his hand, her fingers cold from clutching the chilled bottle, but he let his fingers slide past. Ruby hadn’t changed. She was still the same good-time girl he’d loved in high school. She was smiling at him, her hips swaying to the music as she beckoned him to dance and re-join the party. But he no longer felt the desire to be with her, to keep her happy the way he once had. He was going through the motions and that wasn’t fair on either of them. How did he tell Ruby that?
His tongue was wooden. Instead of saying what he felt, he mumbled out an excuse. “I rode, remember?”
Ruby shrugged, her long blond hair spilling over her shoulders. “So? We can crash here tonight.”
Yeah, on the floor. That was fine when he was seventeen or eighteen and didn’t want his dad to know he was out drinking—though he was sure in hindsight his dad knew more than he’d let on.
“I have to study. I have exams starting in a week.” And then a summer job, then one more year to go and he’d be a qualified mechanical engineer.
“College is all you ever talk about. Can’t you just get a job like everyone else?”
He’d heard that from her many times. She didn’t like that he wasn’t earning while everyone else was, but she didn’t look at the long term—it was all about now with Ruby. Lately they’d been having the same arguments over and over like they were stuck on a loop. He couldn’t do it anymore, but he didn’t know how to break up with the girl who’d been his since he was fifteen. They’d been together for too long for it to be easy and painless.
The music went up as someone’s favorite song came on. He’d been the only one out of all his friends to go to college. A few had joined the defense force; most had drifted into full-time positions at the shops they’d worked in through high school. Ruby had studied childcare and worked at the nearby center; now she kept talking babies. He didn’t want children—not yet. Not for several years. He wanted to do other things first.
She mouthed something at him he couldn’t hear over the music.
He leaned in to speak in her ear. “I’m going. You stay if you want.”
And she would. And she’d be fine. This wasn’t the first party he’d left early and then gone back to pick her up the next day. Even as he thought it, he resented the interruption that would come tomorrow. Then there’d be the fight about how he shouldn’t have left her at the party, that he didn’t really love her, and that he wouldn’t move in with her. The list of his faults would just go on. Then he’d apologize, they’d kiss and make up and everything would be sweet until next time.
He didn’t want a next time.
He touched her long blond hair, then her cheek. Ruby was right. He didn’t love her the way he should. The way she deserved. “Goodbye, Ruby.”
Tate walked away. He pulled his helmet and jacket out of the hall cupboard, where he’d hidden them from those who would play dress-up in them once they’d had more than a few beers. Outside the air still thumped with loud music. He gave the party another hour before the neighbors called the police. He swung his leg over his motorbike and pulled on his jacket.
“Tate, wait.” Ruby came running out the house. She reached the bike, breathless and dazed. “Don’t leave.”
So, she wasn’t so drunk she hadn’t noticed him going. He stared at her reflection on the black helmet in his lap.
“Tate?” She sounded worried, as if she knew this was different somehow.
He lifted his gaze. Once all he’d wanted was to be in her arms and to believe they’d be together forever. He glanced at the house and the people tumbling out of the front door, the empty beer cans lined up along the porch. This wasn’t the life he wanted. “I’m sorry.”
She put her hand on his arm. “You’re scaring me.”
He had to do it, make a clean break. She’d be angry and hurt, but she’d realize they were better off apart. She’d be happier with someone else…and so would he. The ache was back, pressing on his heart. He’d been with Ruby for so long. Had he stayed out of fear? Because she was familiar and safe? Even their fights were routine. She had to have noticed the change, that something wasn’t right. He couldn’t be what she wanted. If he were, she wouldn’t get pissed with him for having to study instead of taking her out.
He took a breath but couldn’t look her in the eye. “It’s over. We’ve both known it for a while.”
But neither of them had wanted to be the first one to say it.
“It doesn’t have to be. We’re good together.” Her fingers trailed up his thigh. She lowered her lashes and gave him the look that had once brought him to his knees.
He placed his hand over hers. They were good together because they’d only ever been with each other. They’d grown up together, experimented together. It had been good, better than good. His throat tightened, but he had to keep going, not kiss her and hope things would change. “It’s not enough.”
It didn’t matter how good the sex was, it wasn’t enough for him. Not anymore. He needed more, even if he didn’t know what that was at the moment. He’d figure it out on his own.
Her eyes filled with tears. “You’re just cross about the party. We can talk tomorrow. It will be okay tomorrow.”
Tate closed his eyes and swallowed. This was more difficult than he’d thought it would be. He didn’t want to hurt her.
She took his silence as agreement. “I’ll get my jacket and helmet. I’ll leave with you now.” She pulled her hand free, and he heard her footsteps race up the driveway.
It was hard to say no to her; she’d always been his weakness. He wanted to believe that tomorrow things would be different, but he knew they wouldn’t be. They’d circled this fight too many times and he’d always backed down. But he had to do it because Ruby wouldn’t. She would hold on.
He zipped up his jacket and pushed on his helmet. Each move was slow and determined. He wouldn’t let himself be talked around. Yet he couldn’t take off and leave her standing on the driveway wondering what had happened either.
He would drop her at home, go back to his home to sleep, then study, and when she rang tomorrow—which she would—they would have it out for the last time. Ruby would be much happier with a man who was happy to make babies and live in the town they grew up in for the rest of his life. He wasn’t that man.
The bike thrummed to life beneath him. Black and chrome. Secondhand and the best bike he could afford. Ruby had loved it at first, until she realized he had no plans to buy a car as well. He couldn’t afford to pay insurance and registration on both. The income from his part-time job didn’t stretch that far.
Ruby reappeared at his side. He waited while she got herself sorted and got on behind him. Her arms hugged his waist the way they’d done many times before. He was going to miss that. He was going to miss her.
Was he making a mistake? They’d been together for so long, maybe this was just how it was. But missing her was different from loving her. His heart hadn’t skipped a beat or longed for her for months. He’d stopped loving her and didn’t even know when it had happened.
He eased the bike down the driveway. Ruby wriggled behind him, making the bike sway.
Tate paused and turned his head. “You all right?”
“Hold on.” Having a drunken passenger was never the easiest ride. They didn’t roll well with the bike, so every turn became an exercise in balance. Again, nothing he hadn’t done before with Ruby.
He checked the street and waited in the driveway as a white SUV raced past. Someone’s new car was getting test driven by everyone at the party. He’d had a look at it earlier in the night. It was flash, leather seats and sunroof. Pity the owner wasn’t smart enough to hide the keys. The insurance wouldn’t cover the car if the driver was drunk. He let it roar by then turned onto the road and went the opposite way.
This was the neighborhood he’d grown up in. He passed the two-story place that had been his house before his parents’ divorce. Two blocks away was Ruby’s house. He indicated, checked the intersection and noted headlights coming up the road. It was his right of way, so he started slipping around the corner.
Halfway round he realized the car’s headlights were moving too quickly to stop at the sign. They were going to run the stop sign and go straight through the intersection. They were going to hit him. Panic kicked hard. He had to get clear. He gunned the bike through the intersection. Ruby’s weight shifted, he adjusted his weight to compensate, but it was too late. The SUV was too fast and too close.
His world shattered in the crunch and scream of metal.
Then there was no bike. Adrenaline squeezed his heart. He couldn’t breathe. He was in the air. There were lights everywhere. Spinning. He hit the ground on his side and slid—there was nothing he could do. He came to a stop. Pain flooded his body. The bike shot past him, sparks in its wake. He had to get up. He couldn’t move. He didn’t want to be here. He sighed and closed his eyes. The lights were too bright.
“Tate.” Ruby tried to shake him, but she couldn’t move him. He was bleeding, his jacket was torn…was that muscle where skin should be? Her stomach rolled. “Oh my God. Tate. Wake up!” She didn’t know what to do.
Ruby stood up. “Help. Someone help us.” Her voice echoed.
The driver got out of the car, along with his three passengers. “Shit, man.” A dark-haired guy she didn’t know swore as he looked up the street. “You’ve fuckin’ killed them.”
“Hey is that Ruby?”
“Yes!” She placed her hand over her heart and sighed with relief. “It’s me. Call an ambulance. Tate needs help.” Her cell phone—she could call an ambulance. She smoothed her hands over her pockets. Where was her phone? Had she left it at the party?
She looked at the guys. They weren’t doing anything, and they weren’t looking at her. They were staring at a crumpled figure lying on the driveway. Cold scrambled down her spine and spread. They’d hit a bystander too? They needed to call an ambulance now.
“Hey! You have to help me. I need a phone. My boyfriend is hurt.” No one looked at her. It was like they were ignoring her. How dare they! They couldn’t do that. These guys had caused the accident. Their car had hit the bike. She remembered the impact—it had shuddered through her body and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. Then it was gone.
“Let’s get back in the car and go.” One of the guys started edging away.
His mate shook his head. “We have to call Emergency.”
“Yes.” Finally one of them was thinking. If she’d had her phone, she’d have rung already. “Please hurry!” Ruby raced back to Tate. There was blood around him now and his color looked wrong somehow. She tried to check his pulse but couldn’t find it. Was he dead already? She stared at his chest. He was breathing. But she didn’t feel relieved. Behind her the guys were still arguing.
“Then they’ll know we did it, stupid.”
“If we don’t, you’ll be really screwed.” The speaker belched. “Glad I wasn’t driving.”
“I’ll ring, then we go, and we give the car a fuckin’ good scrub with bleach like they do on tele.”
“Does that work?”
“I’ll check their pulse or something. If they’re dead, it doesn’t matter.”
“He’s not dead. He’s alive.” Why wouldn’t they listen to her? They were more interested in the woman lying on the driveway. If she was dead she was beyond help, but Tate was still alive.
One of the men walked over to the woman. Why was she so fascinating? This time Ruby paid attention and looked closer. The woman was wearing a white jacket. Ruby took a step closer. It was the same as her white jacket. Who was this woman? Had she been at the party and on her way home? Ruby made herself walk over. The man lifted the woman’s wrist. The gleam of diamonds on the pink watch caught her eye.
The man dropped the woman’s arm, his examination over. “She’s dead.”
Ruby looked more closely at the woman. Her nails were carefully painted, small red hearts on white polish. Nausea hit Ruby’s stomach like a punch. She lifted her hands and looked at her nails.