“You sure I should stay here, Zack?” Rose eyed him hesitantly, not looking so confident about this venture. “Maybe I should at least wait where I can see you? What if they come up with something nasty?”
“Nah, come on. They’re not like that. I mean they’re bikers and all. But they’re not thugs.” Zack tugged on his belt, and then after a moment of thought pulled his t-shirt out of his jeans. The leather jacket he bought was of good make, and most importantly looked cool, but he wasn’t sure about the size. It hung loosely on him. It seemed to be made for someone shaped more like his dad than him. The teenager huffed at the thought. He should have it trimmed later. “Ehm, how do I look?” He turned to his friend.
The girl circled him with a thoughtful expression, then stood with her hands on her hips. “It’s okay,” she judged. “The hair’s a bit out of control, but I guess that’s the idea?”
“Yeah, they all have it, it’s a thing…” Zack adjusted his voluminous mullet. Unlike the bikers he didn’t have to use any hair products to get a very impressive mane of hair going. In fact all he had to do was let it go. He wasn’t quite sure if his mullet wasn’t more of an afro to an outsider. That would be an embarrassing fashion misstatement. Zack smiled at Rose. “Ok, I think I’m ready. There I go, then.”
She smiled at him. “Godspeed, my dude. I’ll hang out here. Scream, and I’m gonna come running.”
“Thanks, sir knight,” Zack laughed.
They fist-bumped, and he trod off towards his destiny.
* * *
Nineveh Gardens was not one of the parks you could walk your dog in. Unless the dog came with a pedigree as long as its owner’s. It was an upper class place, and so was the Matinée Café, which served as a meeting point for high society youths during the school year and summer alike.
All visitors not quite out of the top drawer were frowned upon here. Frowns were particularly distinct today, as the café terrace had been plagued with the most outrageous and undesirable but not so easily removed lot. Some customers had already cleared their seats and moved to further tables, to get away from the group in studded leather jackets and jeans cut-offs. Two clients were quarreling with a red-faced waitress. To everyone’s displeasure she couldn’t do anything about the bikers, who were sipping their drinks and didn’t yet give her any basis to call the police.
The blazer-wearing teenagers at the furthest tables scoffed and glared at the bikers. Then their attention switched to a new eyesore.
Zack walked slowly and confidently even as his stomach sunk. Some of the preppy kids were his classmates. That had to be the reason the bikers chose this location. Whatever was going to happen would leave a significant mark on his reputation. The teen swallowed, feeling cold sweat run down his spine. If they wanted to, the Pharaohs could drag him through the mud and then turn him down, making him the laughing stock of his whole school. But he couldn’t back out. It was too late.
“Hi,” Zack said. He tried to act laid-back.
They looked at him. Three men and one woman, Tamika, as far as Zack could remember. The other lady biker was not around. The club leader, Nakhti, nodded at Zack. His face was unreadable, unlike that of Yen who was currently draped all over him. Yen’s expression read a very clear ‘stay off my turf’. Sam sat with his arms crossed, face about as blank as Nakhti’s, but Zack knew that he had been the one who had spoken in his favor. Zack took a deep breath. “So, um, where do we start?”
He noticed an empty chair between Tamika and Sam and headed towards it.
“That seat is Josie’s, homeboy,” Yen said venomously.
Zack stopped, giving the lot of them a quizzical look. There was a while of silence, during which the bikers seemed to enjoy this prelude to his interrogation.
“Bring another chair.” Nakhti finally put Zack out of his misery.
Zack did just that, snatching a chair from one of the empty tables. He turned the chair around and sat down with his arms on the backrest.
“Ooh, a chair rebel.” Yen snorted.
Zack’s face and ears flushed. He felt like he was walking on a tightrope over an abyss of catastrophic failure, and the void was laughing at him. The void was also wearing a bandana and sprawled shamelessly over the man of his dreams. Keep it cool, you can do it. Zack clenched his fists and waited.
“Hey, waiter dear, bring some water, we’ve got a fire over here!” Tamika laughed at the biker wanna-be’s red cheeks, making Zack feel even more embarrassed.
“Ehm, that won’t be necessary. But I would like a Dr Pepper, please!” Zack called out after the frustrated waitress.
“Don’t get too cosy. You won’t be sitting here for long.” Nakhti’s voice was cold and ominous. Zack didn’t know what to think about that statement until the man continued. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” Zack said, hoping he knew what he was doing.
“If you pass the challenges, and we let you become our hang-around with a chance of later becoming our prospect, the whole city will know you’re gay. There will be no backing out. So, I’ll ask one more time. Are you sure?”
The teenager chewed his lips. This was a big decision. But what did he stand to lose? His father knew, Rose knew, and as for everyone else — did he really care what they thought of him? He didn’t. He wasn’t popular at school anyway, how much worse could it get?
“I am sure,” Zack said. He looked the club leader in the eyes as bravely as he could. “I want to be a Pharaoh.” God, that sounded dumb.
“Well then, let the trials begin. Do the honours, Yen.” Nakhti ordained.
Yen unglued himself from the man and picked something from under his chair. He walked up to Zack, and the teenager’s eyes opened wide at the sight of a jar of vaseline in Yen’s hands. “Get up and take off your jacket,” Yen said with a smirk.
Zack did as told, leaving his jacket on the chair. He eyed the vaseline and the bikers anxiously. Yen opened the jar and started smearing its contents on Zack’s bare arms, face and neck. “Now crouch.”
The teen exhaled heavily, once again doing as told. Glitter rained on him, sticking to his skin and getting caught in his hair and on his clothes. A cardboard sign was hung onto his neck, held by old shoe laces. It read ‘I’M GAY’ in all capitals. Zack stared at his arms. The sign on his neck seemed superfluous, his skin shone like a disco ball reflecting a rainbow. He would have found the effect pretty if it wasn’t on him.
“Now you are ready to take your trials. I hope you brought your bike, Richie Rich, or you’re gonna get disqualified.” Yen looked down at him smugly.
“It’s outside the park, beside your own,” Zack mumbled nervously.
“Lead the way then, and no shaking off the glitter, or taking off the sign, or it’s all over.”
“Ah-alright,” Zack said and headed back the way he came, feeling a park’s worth of glares on his back.
“Hey, girlie. Is that hot mess your relation or…?”
Rose turned to discover a short figure leaning against the park fence in the shadow of a large tree. It was one of the women from the biker club. Her eyes were made up to look like those of Ancient Egyptians. Her vest had a few rainbow patches among the more generic slogans about a need for speed.
The girl put her hands on her hips challengingly. “Zack is my best friend, and he will yet surprise you. You have no idea just how cool he is.”
“Woah-woah, easy there. Well, it looks like the boy at least knows how to make loyal friends.” The biker left her spot in the shadow and walked over to Rose, offering a hand in a fingerless leather glove. “I’m Josie.”
Rose dropped her defensive position. She eyed Josie with caution, but accepted the extended hand and shook it firmly. “Rose. Nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure’s all mine. Say, would you like to join us?”
“Sure, you seem like a ballsy young Miss.” Josie grinned. “We could always use more women to offset that sausage fest.”
“What… how… but I’m not… I’m not even … well… uh…” Taken off-guard, Rose looked at the biker lady in deep embarrassment.
Josie was looking at her with a knowing smile. She waggled her eyebrows.
Rose’s cheeks turned red.
* * *
Rose sat on the bench by the bikes. Josie was still with her. After a bit of an awkward start, the conversation turned more manageable. The biker lady inquired about Zack, so naturally Rose seized that opportunity to speak about him in superlatives. Zack was awesome. All she said was the truth and only the truth.
“How did you even meet him, eh?” Josie was polishing her shades with the edge of her top.
Rose narrowed her eyes. “He’s my childhood friend. We grew up together.”
“Oh really? You don’t look like a rich kid, no offense, that’s a good thing. So how’d that happen?”
“Oh you’d like me to tell you. Ah-ah. No way Jose.” She was not telling a bunch of bikers that her mom had been Zack’s nanny. Rose thought maybe she shouldn’t be talking to Josie at all, but no, that would be rude.
“Oooh, I see what you did there. Funny and mysterious! I’m liking you more and more, girl.”
Rose was at a loss for words again, but Josie seemed to have a very short attention span, so very soon the conversation moved from Zack and her and progressed to motorcycles and then began to almost randomly switch between other topics. They talked for half a minute about aquariums and tropical fish, and another half about pyrotechnics and finally doing African American hair and the struggles that came with it. The way Josie’s thoughts snapped from one thing to another was a bit bizarre but hey, everyone had their quirks.
Rose didn’t expect Zack coming back as soon as he did. Especially not glittering in the sun like that. That kind of iridescence on a teenage boy was not a good sign, not at all… Had the Pharaohs turned him down and so quickly? And then Rose saw the sign on Zack’s neck. She almost flew off the bench, going to meet Zack halfway, and only preventing herself from running, not to embarrass him. Josie was hot on her heels.
“Are you alright?” Rose asked Zack quickly before the guy tailing him got to them.
“Yeah, it’s… uh, part of the test… I have to find some hidden objects around town. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes or so,” Zack said without conviction. He walked over to his bike and passed Rose her helmet that had been hanging on the handlebar.
“You better be back in fifteen! Or you won’t get to hang around, rich kid,” Yen taunted.
Rose stared the guy down, wrinkling her nose dangerously, then turned back to Zack. “You can do it, I’m keeping all fingers crossed…” She didn’t get to say anything more because Zack seemed in a real hurry and the other guy was cracking his verbal whip on him. “Just please come back in one piece?”
“Thanks, Rose! I’ll try!”
Rose watched the two guys get onto their respective motorbikes and drive off. Before they disappeared behind a street corner, she heard the biker that followed Zack start yelling, “Look at this pansy riding around town covered in glitter! Look at him, people!”
The girl shook her head, reassured in her conviction that this wasn’t such a great idea. But there was just no getting that through to Zack.
When she turned around, Josie was right there, grinning at her. Rose assumed a confrontational frown. “So that’s how it is here? Is this what one has to do to join you? You said you’re not troublemakers!”
“Missy, you’re smart, so try counting to five. Do we look like people been joining us lots? We’re a tight-knit club so yes, it’s a real challenge. Especially for that sonny boy friend of yours, because he’s been stalking us and being damn ridiculous! But if you wanted to join us then things would be different. I’m sure we could skip the hang-around phase, go right to you striking for a prospect… because girl, you are quite striking.”
This time Rose resisted the blush and gave Josie her best skeptical look.
Zack stared ahead, mortified. He focused entirely on the road, yet he couldn’t help but feel every hostile or curious look. Not only was it a sunny Sunday with lots of people in the streets, the biker behind him never fell silent other than to inhale.
“Pansy! Pansy! Butt pirate!” Yen yelled with exaltation. “Look at him, riding through the streets glittering like a gay-ass disco ball! No shame!”
Zack swallowed. What if this was a huge mistake? His father’s wealth could probably protect him from the worst consequences, but what if even that wasn’t enough? No. Now was no time to think about it. He wanted to come out. He wanted to ride with the Pharaohs. Hiding in a closet all his life was not a price he would ever want to pay for peace of mind. Zack gripped the handlebars firmly, forcing himself to ignore both Yen and the people around him for purposes other than riding safely and lawfully. The last thing he needed now was a traffic violation.
With his newfound semblance of calm, the teen focused on the task ahead. He had to go to the small square with the bust of Columbus and ‘find his armor in the green’. He could only guess it meant the bushes that grew next to the monument. He wasn’t entirely sure about Columbus’ bust itself either, but that was the only landmark that fit the ‘explorer’ bit of the puzzling instruction he had received. It was in poem form and most of it instantly slipped his mind, but he was quite sure on the explorer and armor part. He thought so at least… Some wild goose chase these guys sent him onto.
Zack parked his bike in the square and jogged towards the monument. Yen was on his heels, hollering as he ran.
“Queen, fruit pie, chicken, chicken, cheep cheep!”
An elderly woman who was feeding pigeons froze in her tracks, squinting at the two of them through thick glasses. Then she shook her cane at Yen, completely ignoring Zack. The boy felt momentarily better. The ire of the old lady did not seem to bother Yen in the slightest, he pranced around Zack, as the teen scoured the bushes.
To his horror he soon pulled out a pink inflated swimming ring and matching water wings.
Yen ceased circling him in a wild dance and stopped with his hands on his hips. “Go ahead, don your protective gear. You’re gonna want to stay afloat in the river of shit they call life.”
Zack stared at the swimming ring. “That’s too small for me, it’s like for a kid or something.”
“Oh, but it should fit just fine around your neck.”
Zack looked at the biker incredulously.
Yen shrugged. “It’s not too late to give up and run home crying.”
Zack pulled the swimming aid over his head and slid the other two onto his forearms. They refused to go any higher.
“That’s good enough, I guess,” Yen said generously. “Your next task is to acquire makeup and do your best impression of an Ancient Egyptian. You have…” Yen looked at his watch. “Twelve more minutes.”
Zack swore under his breath. Last time he tried drawing on his face was in preschool. He wasn’t even sure where the closest store that sold cosmetics was. He looked left and right and then looked at Yen. The biker watched him with a smirk, visibly enjoying his confusion. His own eyes were skillfully lined in the required fashion.
“Could you point me to a shop selling cosmetics, please?” Zack asked begrudgingly.
Yen’s eyebrows rose. “Oh. The boy knows the magic word.”
Zack looked at him expectantly.
“Well,” Yen drawled. “I suppose there’s one ten streets that way.” He pointed out the direction.
Zack grimaced. It was another busy area. The shops there would no doubt be crowded. But there was no time to lose. He hurried to his bike, and Yen followed in his wake, once more yelling to attract the attention of onlookers.
* * *
Zack winced at the uneven mess he conjured around his eyes. The compact mirror he had purchased together with eyeliner let him take in the tragedy one eye at a time. He looked like he had allowed a younger sibling to draw on him while he slept. His cheeks and ears burned with embarrassment. And not just because of the failure at applying makeup.
The trip into the store had been as nerve-racking as the ride across town. And now as he looked around himself, almost all the passersby were giving him dirty looks. Zack frowned and stuck the eyeliner pencil and mirror into his boot. Then he walked over to Yen who was guarding their bikes.
“There. I did my best. Let’s move on.”
“Not so fast,” Yen said. “The next clue is hidden next to a house on this very street, but to figure out which one you must solve this.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it, handing it to Zack.
“What does all of this public humiliation have to do with being a biker…” Zack grumbled, accepting the paper. It was a puzzle titled Number Place. It looked a lot like a crossword, but it had numbers in it, and the instructions said only numbers would be used. Two of the empty squares were circled in red crayon with handwritten instructions that those would give him the first and last digit of the number of the building he needed. Zack glared at the puzzle. “I thought your theme was Egypt.”
“It is. But the trials don’t have to be. Though in this case, Ancient Egyptians were hella mathematical. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.”
Zack winced and pulled out the eyeliner. He leaned against his bike and started solving the puzzle.
“Seven minutes left,” Yen chirped.
Zack frowned, scanning the filled squares to find the most obvious empty spaces to fill. He wrote a few numbers in. It wasn’t all that hard. He was getting in the zone.
Glitter rained on the puzzle.
Zack looked up to see Yen smirking at him, sprinkling more glitter on him from a small plastic bag he had brought along.
Zack scowled and shook the glitter off of the puzzle. Something caught his eye. There was more red crayon on the back of the piece of paper. Zack turned it over and read.
‘Alternatively: How many Rings of Power were not created by Sauron?’
Zack squinted at the question. “Huh. Three for the elves. Seven for the dwarves. Nine for the kings of men. That makes nineteen. Nineteen?” He looked up at Yen.
Yen shrugged. “Don’t ask me, I don’t read that sci-fi crap.”
Zack gave him a skeptical look and turned back to the puzzle. He had too little time. Nineteen it was. Zack stuffed the puzzle, pencil and mirror all into his boot and hopped on his bike. “Let’s go.”
Yen snorted and followed, soon returning to his loud routine.
* * *
Number nineteen on Lincoln Street was a library. Zack approached the bushes to conduct another search, dreading more pink swimming paraphernalia. A white object under one of the bushes caught his eye. He lifted it. It was a button that read ‘I’ve been to the library’ in colorful letters, and it was pinned to another piece of paper. Zack unpinned the button and unfolded the paper.
The instructions told him to wear the badge and drive a few streets further to pick up one more item from a thrift store. The clerk would allegedly know he was coming.
Zack hurried towards his bike. He pinned the badge on his shirt.
The ride to the thrift store only took a moment. And he hardly got off his bike when a young black woman ran up to him. She had a grin on her face and a pink feather boa in her hands. Zack groaned as she wrapped it around the swimming ring on his neck.
“Say hi to Josie,” the woman said cheerfully.
“I will.” Zack sighed.
Yen drove up to stop next to him. “Now for the last part, you gotta hurry. You only have five minutes to buy a can of Doctor Pepper and return to the park.”
Zack frowned, trying to remember where the nearest grocery store or gas station was.
“There’s a small grocery store not far from here,” the woman from the thrift store offered. She gave Zack the directions. He drove off in a hurry, and ended up having to yell his thanks back at her. She didn’t seem to mind and waved to him with a smile before returning to the store.
Zack no longer noticed the staring strangers. He had too little time. He had to reach the store and get that soda before he ran out of time. Thankfully he knew these streets well enough, so he assumed he wouldn’t have a problem finding his way back to the park.
Zack almost crushed his bike into a street lamp from surprise. He knew that voice. Oh no, he knew it too well. He wasn’t planning to stop or look back, but he wasn’t given a choice. Before he managed to fully recover from the shock, the speaker caught up with him.
Taylor ran alongside Zack’s bike on the side of the street. There was a look of mad delight painted on the blond teen’s face.
“I knew it! I was right! You’re a fucking faggot!” Taylor roared with laughter, visibly and audibly unaffected by running at over twenty miles per hour. “You look like a cheap whore who moonlights as a swimming instructor! Is that your final career choice? No college then?”
“Fuck off, Taylor,” Zack grumbled, trying to keep his focus and not forget the directions he was given. He sped up a little, wary of the speed limit.
Taylor still managed to keep up.
At least the biker behind them had fallen silent. Zack couldn’t blame him. He must have seen Taylor overtake him on foot. It would have shocked Zack too if he hadn’t grown up with the unstoppable blond asshole.
“Doesn’t your ass hurt riding that bike after what must have been a very busy night?” Taylor laughed again, keeping up pace with Zack’s bike like it was a child’s tricycle and not a Harley Davidson.
“Doesn’t your mouth hurt as it keeps spouting rubbish?”
“Does yours hurt from things spouting into it instead?”
Zack sped up despite the speed limit. Taylor laughed louder than before, even as he fell behind.
“Pay attention on the left turn, kiddo!” Yen yelled from behind.
Zack swore and switched lanes, then made the turn. He was relieved to notice Taylor stopping at the crossroads, apparently not stubborn enough to follow him through traffic. It only took a minute longer for Zack and Yen to reach the store. The biker stayed outside while Zack hurried in.
The moment he set his foot inside, he realized he’d been there before. In fact just recently, trying to buy beer for Wyatt and himself. It was a tiny cramped grocery store, packed with all sorts of junk food, canned beans, beer and soda as well as a miserable display of fresh, but unappealing fruits and vegetables. Zack grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge and slammed it on the counter in front of the bored-looking hillbilly cashier.
“That’ll be seventy five cents.” The buck-toothed clerk didn’t even blink at Zack’s present appearance. He had probably seen worse in his line of work.
Zack put a dollar bill down. “Keep the change.”
He took the can and turned to leave, but almost bumped into Taylor. The blond towered over him, making the small shop feel crowded.
“What’s that? Getting something cool for your aches?” Taylor grinned.
“Will you ever fuck off?!”
“You wish.” Taylor smirked showing his perfect white teeth. “I always knew you were a pansy. But I must admit, I’ve never imagined just to what an extent. So, how much do you charge? Does your dad not give you enough pocket-”
“I am not a hooker, now move aside!”
“Not in the shop.” The clerk leaned out from behind the counter, looking just as bored as before. “Take this outside. Or I’ll call the cops.”
Taylor snarled, but let Zack pass. “After you, Queenie.”
Zack stalked out of the shop and headed for his bike.
“Your faggy ass doesn’t belong on a motorbike anyway!” Taylor called after him, stepping out of the shop. “Those are for real men!”
“I assume by ‘real men’ you mean men who chase biking gays around through traffic? You sure you don’t wanna join our club? You seem to be, like, obsessed,” Yen chimed in.
Taylor grimaced. “Watch your mouth, fag.”
“I’m too busy watching yours. And it’s going to waste as it is.” Yen smirked.
“Let’s go.” Zack nodded to Yen and rode off.
The biker waved at Taylor and followed. The ride back to the park was blissfully bereft of Yen’s prior yelling.
* * *
Zack could see Rose staring at him in horror, as he jumped off his bike. He couldn’t blame her. He looked like a clown. The biker lady beside her stopped Rose from going to him, and Zack was grateful, he had no time to lose. He ran through the park, clutching the can of soda and hardly noticing the hostile and bewildered looks of the people he maneuvered between.
Zack only stopped, panting, in front of the table where the bikers sat. He put the can down on it and bent down, breathing heavily. He had been forced to run through the park to fit into the time limit, but he had managed. He was still catching his breath, as Nakhti picked the can of soda and opened it, sipping some.
Zack blinked in confusion. He… just got the guy a soda. He felt so stupid. This whole ordeal was for nothing, they were just making fun of him, they weren’t going to let him join, and now Taylor knew he was gay and was going to pester him with the intensity of a searchlight. His previously pathetic social life now lay in ruins, and the guy of his dreams just made him fetch a soda across town while he could have got one right here…
“You read the Lord of the Rings,” Sam said quietly. “That’s good.”
Zack turned to the short boxy man with a scowl, looking for words to describe what he thought of a gay biker club that would do this to a teenager just to mock him. But as he searched for words, Sam stood up and walked up to him, offering a small towel.
“You can remove the glitter with this. Some of it anyway. And you don’t have to keep wearing the swim gear and boa. Feel free to keep the badge if you like it.”
The short guy was so soft-spoken and genuinely friendly that it gave Zack pause. He looked at the others and saw a half-smile on Tamika’s face. Yen, who had just re-joined them after having walked rather than ran through the park, looked back at Zack with a serious look, that was perhaps not friendly, but still much better than the venomous slyness from before. He walked over to Nakhti and leaned down, whispering something into the club leader’s ear. They exchanged a few hushed words.
Zack watched them as he removed the remaining water wing from his arm. Sam put the cardboard sign, the boa and water wings back into the box Yen had taken the glitter from and placed the swimming ring on top. Zack wiped as much of the vaseline and glitter off as he could and sat down on his chair. He still wasn’t sure that this was going anywhere good, but the desire to lash out had passed, leaving behind only a residue of bitterness.
What had he ever done to them in the first place? It’s not like he chose to be born rich any more than they chose not to.
“So, you’ve passed the determination test,” Nakhti’s voice instantly transformed what was left of Zack’s anger into gut-wrenching anticipation. “Now that you’ve actually experienced the kind of attention you can expect from everyone around if you ride with us, are you still sure that you want to do this?”
Zack’s expression cleared completely. So it was a taste of their everyday lives. Not an act of unwarranted hostility. Zack felt foolish and let go of what bitterness he still felt. “Yes,” he said calmly. “I want to be one of the Pharaohs.”
“Very well then.” Nakhti took the soda again and brought it to his lips. “Now we will ask you some questions to check just how well you might fit in the club. That is, aside from Sam being happy that you’ve been to the library.” With that, he drank.
As if on cue, the quiet, boxy man came up to the table and deposited a Dr Pepper can in front of Zack, before nodding to him and settling down in his seat, looking serious.
Nakhti watched Zack silently, narrowed brown eyes rimmed by the perfectly applied eyeliner.
“Are you ready?”
Zack nodded and cracked his soda open. Then he sipped and listened.
Nakhti started out by outlining the basic rules of the club: mutual respect between club members, standing as one in the face of danger to any of them, sharing burdens be they financial or otherwise in all matters related to club activity. As a hang-around he wouldn’t really be a part of the club at first, and would only be expected to do a chore now and then. But as a prospect, Zack would have a greater share in the more mundane duties, not just guarding but also cleaning the bikes.
Zack nodded, he understood and accepted that.
“There are also other expectations that come with belonging to the Pharaohs.” The club leader continued. “It’s not a highschool drama club. If you join us, you will have to conform to our way of life.”
“Are you ready to come out of the closet? No hiding, no lying. Gay on the bike, gay off the bike. Gay by day and gay by night.” Yen recited. “Are you ready for such a life?”
“Are you prepared to learn, respect and practice some of the ways of the Ancient Egyptians?” Sam asked.
“Uh… yeah?” Zack said, unsure what he was agreeing to.
“If someone gives you a task, you do it,” Tamika said.
“What if one of us asks you to break the law?” Sam asked.
Zack frowned. He thought about it for a moment. “I wouldn’t do that. Unless it’s a stupid law, like the kind they still have down South.”
Sam nodded, his expression reserved.
Zack bit his lip nervously. He had heard of biker gangs being involved in crime. But the Pharaohs were a club, not a gang, and they had no criminal reputation. Not as far as he knew.
“I wouldn’t snitch or rat anyone out if something happened. But I wouldn’t turn a blind eye to or partake in anything grossly illegal,” the teenager said sternly. They could make him ride around in a tutu, but he wasn’t going to compromise his humanity. Neither for his dad, nor for the Pharaohs.
“What are you going to do when you’ve crossed the speed limit, and a police officer is pulling you over?” Nakthi asked. His brown eyes were surprisingly cold.
“I wouldn’t cross the speed limit. Not by much.”
Yen whistled. “Lady and gentlemen, what a law-abiding citizen we have over here!”
“I’m not a Citizen,” Zack babbled out before he could stop himself.
The club leader looked at him very attentively.
“I mean-… I don’t and won’t break laws that keep people safe. So I won’t speed within the city limits.” Zack looked down at his feet. “Or in poor visibility.”
A very intense minute later, the questioning seemed to be over. The bikers looked at each other and the one lady present scowled at Zack with an unimpressed expression.
“So let me get that right, kid,” Tamika drawled, “you want to strike for our club, but you’re not actually ready to do everything we tell you to do? You’re just gonna be whimsical like that and pick and choose what you agree to?”
“It’s not that…” Zack huffed and crossed his arms. “I’m ready to follow any reasonable lawful instructions.” He looked at Nakhti but the man’s face remained perfectly emotionless and unreadable. Zack turned back to Tamika. “But I won’t be a thug or a doormat for no one.”
The suspense eased suddenly as the scowls disappeared and some good humour showed through on the bikers’ faces.
Nakhti’s icy expression thawed into a slight smirk. “That’s a good answer. We wouldn’t want a pushover without a moral spine, who just blindly follows what we say. You passed this test as well, Zack. The members of the Pharaohs are going to let you hang around, and if that works out, strike. But there are a few more questions that I would like to ask you first, so remain seated. Everyone else, you’re free to go. We’ll meet you at the bikes in ten minutes.”
There was something about the way that ‘free to go’ had been spoken, that made Tamika, Sam and Yen get up almost in unison. Sam and Tamika smiled to Zack before turning away. Yen smirked and offered an ominous “Good luck”.
Zack and Nakhti remained alone. A feeling magnified by the fact that everyone else present had been sitting in a safe distance from the Pharaohs, and there was a row of empty tables and chairs behind Zack’s back. The club leader’s eyes were for him alone now.
The teenager suddenly felt all the glitter still stuck to his skin, clothes and hair. He remembered the awful mess around his eyes and could only imagine what all the running and nervous sweating was doing to his hair. He didn’t want Nakhti to see him this way. But there they were.
“So you’ve proven to us that you’re really determined to become a Pharaoh, and like I said, we are all willing to give you that chance, but there are a few serious matters that we need to be clear on first.”
“Uh, sure, fire away.”
“Yen and you have had a run-in with some sort of acquaintance of yours. Would you care to elaborate if that ‘Taylor’ is going to be a problem?”
Zack frowned and looked down at the cans of soda on the table between them. “He might be, to be honest. But he’s only after me. We… have a long history. But I can deal with him. Been dealing with him for years.”
“I see.” Nakhti nodded. “In the event of it getting out of hand after all, we will back you up. Now… how old are you, exactly, Zack?”
“Sixteen,” Zack admitted sadly.
“I hope you do understand that this fact will exclude you from partaking in certain club activities.”
“And not just that.”
Zack sighed. “Aw man…”
“Which brings us to the matter I’m most interested in. I know who your father is, Zack. What does he know about this idea of yours, and what might he do about it?”
“He knows. On those terms you just mentioned he won’t have any problem at all.” Zack looked at Nakhti with badly disguised longing. Two more years. Then maybe.
The man watched him very carefully. “Let me repeat this again. I know who your father is, Zack.”
Zack blinked in confusion. He stared into Nakhti’s eyes, unsure what to think of those words. Until he did. He gaped at the leader of the bikers in open shock for a second and then regained his composure. “You… are you one of his…” No, that didn’t make any sense. Then Nakhti wouldn’t have had any questions. “You’re… not with any agency, are you?” Zack mumbled stupidly.
Nakhti watched him, mildly amused. “The gay, Egyptian-themed secret service? No. And we’re not in any way affiliated with you father, nor do we want to fall under his scrutiny. The question is, are we going to, because of you?”
“No.” Zack shook his head violently. “I mean, you shouldn’t. Not in any negative way for sure. Dad is fine with me being… uh, gay. And he even gave me my motorbike. I’ve no part in his business, and most of the time, he has no part in mine.” He remembered Wyatt telling him Nakhti was suspicious, and now he saw where Wyatt was coming from. But that only made Nakhti all the more cool and mysterious, so Zack didn’t mind.
Nakhti stayed silent for a long time. Then he got up, finished his soda and left it on the table together with a tip for the café’s troubles.
“You will not mention this conversation to your father.”
That wasn’t a question, but Zack still replied vehemently. “I won’t.”
“Come on, then.”
Zack gulped down his own Dr Pepper, still wide-eyed. Adding generously to the tip already on the table, he left the café in the club leader’s footsteps, feeling butterflies in his stomach.
He emerged out of the park disheveled, still glittering, but triumphant. Most of the Pharaohs were gathered next to their bikes and didn’t pay much attention to him, but Rose instantly rushed to him.
“So?!” She clearly had to stop herself from grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking the answer out of him.
“I guess I’m a hang-around, and they might let me become a prospect later,” Zack whispered, almost afraid to jinx it, beginnings of euphoria making his voice crack.
They grabbed each other by the forearms and let out a hushed down cry of triumph and excitement. The bikers were watching them with amused, but friendly looks. All except for Nakhti, who stood to the side, dispassionately smoking a cigarette.
“Congratulations!” Rose whispered back before letting Zack go.
The club leader put out his cig and got on his bike. The others followed. “We’re riding for the wrecking yard. You two can come along if you want.”
Zack grinned at Rose and led her towards his bike. The teens got onto the bike, Rose put on her helmet, and with growing elation Zack drove off, following the Pharaohs, no longer a nuisance, but instead almost part of the club. Well, soon-to-be, anyway.
It began raining at sunset. The downpour washed the dust off the streets and buildings, bringing with it a welcome cool and bathing the city in the reflected light of street lamps and neon signs that replaced the fading sunlight. As suddenly as it came the torrential rain subsided, and night fell on the refreshed, well-hydrated city.
On a narrow street close to the edge of town Betty slammed the brakes, parking the car in a drift.
“She’s back there. On the bridge.”
“Who?” Wilma asked.
“The hippie bitch. She’s mine. You’re the getaway.” Betty jumped out of the car.
“Hell yes! Go get her! I’ll take the wheel!” Wilma got out and hurried around the car to take the driver’s seat.
Betty ran back towards the truss bridge they had just driven over. Even in the limited light her mark was unmistakable — the supersonic hippie was kicking up water from a set of puddles close to the middle of the bridge, as carefree as ever, her back on Betty. Her impossible mane of hair was wet from the rain and getting wetter still as she splashed about.
A few cars passed as Betty stalked towards her prey. Then, in a stroke of luck, the bridge stood completely empty. Behind her, Betty heard the familiar engine rumbling softly as Wilma prepared to secure her a quick escape.
They had played cat and mouse with the tickling bitch long enough. Whenever they came out to find Lucky, she was there, waiting for them. She fought them and she won over and over, taking more of their wigs and accessories than they ever cared to share. She was too fast, too impossible. She was in the way. And they did not tolerate meddlers. Especially such effective ones.
Betty pulled her magnum revolver from under her turquoise and purple wind jacket. When she was barely yards away from her target, she leveled the gun and shot.
Light erupted from the muzzle of the gun, and Xenia stumbled forward. Before she could turn, Betty put two more bullets into her back. As the blindness induced by the flashes of light subsided, with mounting glee Betty watched the wild haired woman struggle to stay on her feet, as she turned around to face her, swaying.
“That’s not good… sportsmanship,” Xenia muttered hoarsely. Blood was soaking through the multiple layers of clothes both at the front and the back. Still, she did not fall over, instead she took an unsteady step towards Betty.
Betty aimed for her head and shot. The light momentarily blinded her again, but this time she did not need to see her target. The hippie rammed herself into her like a professional football player. Betty lost her footing and felt herself flying through the air. She hit something. Then both of them began to fall.
Wilma killed the engine and stared, as the bloody madwoman tackled Betty off the bridge. The pair of them disappeared over the railing. Two more shots rang out soon after, followed by a splash. Wilma struggled out of the car and ran across the bridge. Circles were growing on the dark water below. The drop had to be at least sixty feet.
“That crazy bitch…” Wilma muttered. “Betty?” she cried out tentatively.
There was no answer. Moments passed in silence with Wilma watching the water searchingly. The current wasn’t very strong, the recent heat had shrunk the river, but that meant the fall was longer and the trip to the bottom shorter. Wilma swore again under her breath. In the distance a police siren started howling. Too soon to be a response to their escapade, but a somber reminder regardless. Betty’s revolver shots would not have gone unnoticed. Still, Wilma did not move. She stared down at the river in suspense.
Betty’s colorful jacket appeared on the surface of the water further downstream. Then it vanished.
“Damn it!” Wilma paced back and forth in frustration.
Finally movement on the right bank caught Wilma’s eye. A figure pulled itself out onto the grass and crawled away from the water. It stopped not far from a park lamp post. In the light Wilma could see Betty’s wig and jacket were gone, but she was in one piece, though her poor coordination indicated a possible concussion.
Wilma let out a sigh of relief and turned around, heading towards the car. She paused and then hurriedly walked over to the puddle where the freak had been shot. There was not a trace of blood to be seen. Disturbing, but also convenient. She did not wonder about it and instead ran to the car. In a few minutes she was in the park, running over the grass to where Betty lay. She was relieved to see the other woman was still breathing when she reached her.
“I shot her six times,” Betty said as Wilma helped her to her feet. “Last three point blank.”
“Last two, I’m afraid. She almost dodged the fourth shot, I think you only caught her in the shoulder.”
“Damn it. I lost my revolver.”
“We’ll get you a new one. Shinier, bigger caliber.” Wilma assured her, as she helped Betty walk. “The car’s nearby.”
“I’ll get the seat all wet.”
“Do you want me to put you in the trunk then?”
Betty snorted. “Not yet.”
Tamika sat on the grass at the edge of a small beach. In front of her, Josie spun around chains with blazing balls, working on her fire poi routine. It was a recent development, but it was a welcome one. These training sessions gave them another reason to regularly hang around near the river without coming off as weirdos.
Josie focused on her fire dance, but Tamika instead was watching the reflections dancing in the water just beyond the narrow strip of sand Josie stood on. The Graystone River was nothing like the waters they were once used to. But that was so long ago. And Josie didn’t even remember any of it. What was left of her, anyway…
Tamika’s somber thoughts dissipated as something other than rippling water caught the firelight. Tamika jumped to her feet. Josie paused and looked at her in surprise, then turned towards the river too.
A woman stood in front of them in the water, wearing a colorful wind jacket, her long hair hanging heavily over most of her face. She was completely drenched and there were dark spots on the jacket, almost like blood.
“Xenia?” Tamika hurried towards the water. “What happened? Do you need help?”
“Should I call an ambulance?” Josie asked, equally alarmed.
“No. No. I’ll be fine. I was just passing by. And I thought I would say hi.” Xenia staggered towards them.
Tamika went into the water and helped her sit down.
“Uh, I’ll go call that ambulance,” Josie said and dropped her poi into the sand.
“No, don’t.” Tamika motioned for her to stay.
Josie gave her and Xenia an incredulous look, but complied. She walked into the water up to her ankles, but did not approach them. “I assume it’s not her blood then…” She looked at the unfocused, distant expression on Xenia’s face with a mix of morbid curiosity and something else. “Is she your ex or something?”
“No.” Tamika rolled her eyes. “And don’t get any ideas.”
“Who do you think I am? She looks like she’s in shock. But she is very good-looking…”
“There we go,” Tamika sighed and turned to the wounded woman. “Xenia, what happened?”
“They shot me in the back.”
“What sons of bitches would dare?!” Josie chimed in.
“More like daughters… But that’s not important. What I need is a comb,” Xenia said.
“Oh no… Did you lose yours?” Tamika asked.
Xenia grimaced and nodded. “It got in the way of a bullet.”
“Say no more, sister.” Tamika stood up and turned to Josie. “Go, get her a comb from our place, would you? Instead of ogling. Best comb we got, maybe bring a few and please hurry!”
“Sure…” Josie said, unable to keep her eyes off of Xenia even as she started walking away. She paused, turning around. “How about a first aid kit?”
“No! Just the comb, go already!” Tamika shook a fist at her.
“Got it!” Josie jogged towards her bike and hurriedly walked it out of the park. A distant roar of the engine told them she’d reached the road.
“So what actually happened? You look awful! Who did this to you?”
“Citizens. And you should have seen the other gal,” Xenia snorted mirthlessly. “I knocked her off Bering Bridge, almost managed to drown her too, but this jacket was just too neat, and it was being carried away by the current… And now look at it, it’s ruined.” Xenia hugged her knees to her chest. “And I’ve got splinters of my comb sitting in my ribcage.”
“Eesh, I’m sorry.” Tamika cringed. “Do you need a place to hide? Can I do something more for you?”
“No. I should be safe once I have a comb again. El will help. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
“You better be. Maybe skip town, lay low for a while.” Tamika looked at her with worry. “You can always outlive troublesome mortals.”
Xenia laughed. “If you keep running from your problems, you’ll be running forever.”
Tamika hung her head and said nothing.