Raoul was dizzy, a sickly taste rising in his throat. He knew he was hurt but felt no pain. It was hard to see through the blue cloud forming in the dark. Rain fell gently and the road was stained neon pink from the light of the nearby diner that he had never seen before. He stumbled to his feet and tried to find his boots. One of them was torn at the toe, blown off by the explosion. He felt weightless, the wind blowing through him. A flash of memory of the car in flames tugged at his mind. Across the road he saw the camp, its high walls crowned with barbed wire gleaming in the wet night, lit by a massive rectangular fluorescent light on a tall pole. He shuffled to the entrance. There were no guards, no intercom, and no way to get inside. He peered through a crack in the thick corrugated sheets of the gates.
The scene inside was lit in pale blue. On his right, fifty feet away was a man in a dirty, torn white shirt tied to a pole, slumped forward, perhaps unconscious. Hard to tell if he was dead or alive. A soldier in a green parka stood guard. Raoul saw a line forming opposite the man, in front of a command post with a sloping tin roof. Soldiers with rifles taking position; he counted nine. A couple of sergeants were talking into walkie-talkies, their menacing crackle the only sound in the night. A firing squad? Raoul thought. At night? Didn’t these executions happen at the crack of dawn? He looked at the man on the pole. The guard stepped forward and struck him in the shoulder with the butt of a rifle. The man jerked up suddenly with a howl. The firing squad had taken position but they seemed to be waiting for something. The horror of what was about to happen spread through Raoul’s chest like poison gas but he couldn’t take his eyes away.
Ruby was talking over the music, an old The Everly Brothers tune. We were on the highway heading south, rain splashing the windscreen, turning the night into an impressionistic painting. She was saying things she hadn’t for a long time. How much she loved me. How grateful she was that I was in her life. She spoke of her family, their extravagant expectations of her. She reminisced about the traveling circus where I had first met her, or where I had rescued her from, she kept insisting. Her face was achingly sad in the blue light as we drove through an abandoned check post. We had been going through changes, she and I, things she had to do that were going to tear us apart, but it seemed that we were going to survive somehow. The opposition was on my trail and I knew I had to be careful. Many of the original rebel team had joined the other side, spat in the face of the revolution. Taken the easy way out so they could build villas and send their children back to school. It had been a season of wild betrayals, of blow upon blow that left me stunned and desolate. Through it all Ruby had been a shelter in the storm. I trusted her more than anyone. Our love was bound by fate and sealed in blood. For several months I had sensed darkness coalesce inside her, but win or lose, she and I would survive the war and be together.
She asked me to pull over at the next gas station. I eased the car into a deserted Sunoco and stopped. She turned and looked at me, her eyes green-grey pools of light I had long ago surrendered to. “I need to do things I have no control over.” She touched my face gently. Last night we were entwined like rope in the dark, the sound of gunfire in the distance. “Whatever I do, I am going to protect you,” she said and kissed me. “I need something from the trunk.” I thought of the curtain of swallows we had seen earlier over the fields, how they swooped and rose precariously into the twilight sky. “Hurry back and let’s be on our way,” I said, uncertain about what she meant, but I had never felt closer to a woman. She was the one. “I love you,” she said, and opened the door. “Please forgive me.” I unlocked the trunk. She must need something from her bag. The car rocked as she slammed the lid down. I watched her walk away, her wild yellow hair glazed with titanium in the fluorescent light. What should I forgive her for? I wondered, hypnotized by the sound of the windshield wipers.
I picked up the CD we had bought at our last stop. Ruby loved The Everly Brothers, a taste she inherited from her father. Some years ago she had become fanatical about Phil Everly, whose plaintive tenor evoked memories of her adolescent years. She considered “Mystic Lines”, one of Phil’s solo records, the greatest album of all time and a testimony to survival. Ruby admired Phil for walking out of the troubled duo, on stage, at the height of their success. To her it was a symbol of courage, of manliness, of standing up to his brother’s oppression. The song “Better Than Now” summed up her life, she told me many times. For a woman who had seen much cruelty, a cruelty she often brought into our relationship, she had a surprisingly sentimental side. She wanted Phil to be godfather to her first child, and had tried unsuccessfully to track him down several times. It crushed her that his management would not respond to her calls. Phil Everly was the closest Ruby came to religion. When the news came that he had died, she was inconsolable. It was a strange day. She had begun turning away. I was confused by her recent coldness towards me, and yet she was crying for a dead rock star she had never met. Was it the stress and burn of the road? Our chaotic past? Our uncertain future?
I turned up the music. “Bye Bye Love” came on and the world exploded in my face.
Raoul fell to his knees as the rain streamed down his hair. The firing squad came to attention and he saw a figure walk up and take the tenth position, the furthest from where he was. The light was murky and he couldn’t discern the soldier’s features, hidden under an over-sized beret pulled low down on one side, but he knew it was a woman. She signaled to the soldier guarding the limp figure on the pole. “Attention!” the guard shouted into the man’s face. “Stand straight and face the firing squad!” There was moment of stillness. The man on the pole stood erect, the skin on his face dissolving in the rain, clotted blood and torn tissue in his eyes. “Lights!” someone shouted, and the beam of a searchlight swung across the compound and lit up the man on the pole. Raoul saw the glitter of disbelief and terror in his eyes, as he tried to free himself from the pole, his bloodstained clothes in tatters, limbs askew. The woman was giving orders. Raoul watched, his legs trembling in fear. The guns could have been pointed at him.
“Ready!” The nine soldiers in the firing squad angled themselves to shoot on command. The guard next to the man on the pole sprinted away.
“Aim!” The man on the pole closed his eyes. His lips were moving but there wasn’t any sound. The soldiers took aim.
“FIRE!” Bullets ripped through the rain, two short bursts of thunder. Crimson flowers of blood appeared on the man’s stomach and chest. Raoul collapsed into the slush on his hand and knees, crying.
“Inspect the accused!” the woman shouted. The guard ran to the man on the pole. He brought the back of his hand to the man’s mouth to check his breathing and held it there for a moment. He felt his pulse. “He is still breathing!” the guard told the woman. “He is still alive!” The soldiers raised their rifles again but the woman cut them off with a gesture. “All step back!” She took the gun off her shoulder and strode towards the man on the pole, now hunched over limply, held up by ropes. She came within two feet of him and pressed the barrel to his forehead, jerking his face upright. “Look at me!” she screamed. “LOOK AT ME!” The man summoned the last ounces of life to open his eyes one final time and looked at the woman. The pain drained away and everything became clear.
“I’m not the one dying, Ruby,” he whispered. “It’s you.
The woman pulled the trigger.
The aluminum sky turned upside down in slow motion as the car lifted off the road in a ball of fire. The scorching heat burnt my skin and the acrid taste of the explosion caught in my throat. My skull crashed against metal, and I felt remorse, a longing for the familiarity of sorrow, for the moment right before this one, before she walked away, before the orange heat enveloped me and ribbons of shredded light danced before my eyes. Pain settled into a long, lonely season of crawling out on hands and knees through twisted metal and shattered glass, barely conscious. I felt the road against my cheek, hard and cold, but reassuring, the relief of still being alive. The roar of vehicles approaching, or a storm, or a subway train. Lights, brilliant and melancholy. Voices, ah, sonorous and trembling with life, human voices. “Did he survive” a man asked, and an eternity passed before his fingers reached into my neck. “Godammit, he’s still breathing.” Ruby would be coming back now, she would scream when she saw the disaster, and run towards me and cradle me in her arms. She would stop the bleeding and the pain, and I would drift into sleep, and wake up next to her, and hear the whistle blow in the distance, as the train pulled out of the station.
“Load him into the truck,” I heard a woman say. “We have to finish this off the proper way.” I felt hands lift me off the road, the knot of my pain in my side leaking warm fluid. I remembered the tiny mushroom of blood on my forearm when I shot myself with a BB gun as a child, the burn of the bullet eclipsed by my fear of mother’s anger. Where was Ruby? Ruby, my love, the fruit of my wilderness, the milk of my longing, my angel of desire. “Take him to the camp”, the woman said, “Let’s have some fireworks tonight”.
Raoul picked himself off the ground. The rain had stopped and he felt strangely clear-headed. He walked towards the diner, its pink and blue exterior seductive like an oasis. Through the glass he could see a waitress at the bar, polishing glasses. She reminded him of a newspaper article he had read a while ago. Something about an abduction, a young woman who disappeared. He swung open the doors and walked in. No one seemed to notice and he took a place near the window. Thoughts swirled drunkenly in his head, emotions flowing in and out of his body- sadness, shock, horror, and now numbness. He scanned the room and his eyes rested on an elderly man with a round face and a mop of silver-grey hair sitting alone at a table. Raoul wondered who he was, and then it came to him. It was Phil Everly, hunched over a steak, alone, in a black suit, holding a knife and fork. A famous singer from the past, who had supposedly died, was eating dinner in a lonely restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Raoul was trying to register this when the doors swung open and a woman walked in, the woman from the firing squad, now in civilian clothes, a grey coat over a black skirt, her golden hair cascading over her shoulders, a touch of red on her lips. Raoul looked at her and his heart stumbled, world’s rearranging themselves in his head. Ruby. Ruby who he worshiped. Ruby who he loved more than anything in the world. Ruby, who betrayed him, blew him up and shot him down. Ruby whose new friends stood around as he was dying and urinated on his broken, lifeless body. She took a seat at the bar, glancing in the mirror opposite her, and took off her coat without noticing him.
Raoul felt nauseous. Outside, he saw the gates to the camp open, and several trucks drive through. They were preparing for something big it seemed. The dead man had been removed from the pole that now stood unadorned, lonesome in the night. Inside the diner, there was sugary ballad on the radio. Something about never letting go. Something about love.
Ruby felt tired. Tired and impatient. It had not been an easy day. And the night was even worse. She was glad it was all over. She felt a quiver of satisfaction run through her spine. For a while after the car bomb fiasco she was afraid, embarrassed that her lover had survived the blast, and her colleagues would think her incompetent, even untrustworthy, about future assignments. This was a crucial test for her. Raoul had become an obstruction, an emotional fool who was keeping her from her real destiny, the real world where she would shine and flourish, where intellect, achievement, ambition, pedigree and skill decided your fate, not ambiguous ideas like loyalty, trust or love. She found Raoul’s passion exhausting, his devotion to her a sign of weakness, his love claustrophobic. He and his philosophies about humanity and compassion were archaic. They were messing with her head and keeping her from seizing the true fruits of America: success, fame, wealth, the perfect family, the perfect life, and the perfect soul mate. Raoul had served his purpose. He had been very useful when she first arrived; providing a place to stay, explaining the rules of survival, training her in the art of war, using his connections to set her up, and giving her access to valuable information about local politics, the lay of the land. It was the perfect arrangement. He was generous and kind, and blind to her faults. He trusted her and needed very little; occasional demonstrations of desire that she easily faked, and a pretense of love she had difficulty with, but managed somehow. Love required giving, and Ruby only knew how to take. His anachronistic idea of love alone was reason enough for him to die. Why should people with such foggy illusions and poor judgment have any right to live, leave alone lead a revolution? Ruby thought about this and it angered her, made her impatient to leave and embark on her destiny.
She had decided her exit strategy very early in their relationship. As Raoul fell in love with her, she used his emotions to manipulate him, keep him dependent on her. It took her less than six months to establish contact with the opposition, reveal the secrets of the rebel campaign, and finish Raoul. It helped that Serge, the leader of the opposition, and Raoul’s sworn enemy, lusted for her. She had seduced him easily enough one summer night, sharing tales of her gypsy upbringing, rough teenage sex, and lust for aggressive men, specially French men. Men who knew how to bend life to their will, and control their women. She had grown up hating the French for their arrogance and misogyny, but in her fantasies, the humiliation of being considered inferior was an aphrodisiac. Serge took her that night in a shed behind the barracks. He ripped her underwear off and fucked her in the ass, squeezing her breasts painfully and growling in her ear like an animal. “Death to the rebel dogs! Long live the opposition heroes!” Afterwards, as she staggered to the truck that would drive her back to the outskirts of the village where she and Raoul had been hiding, Ruby felt the slimy wetness of Serge’s release seeping out of her, and laughed at the irony of it. She had been her most prudish self with poor Raoul, and here she was, savagely soiled in her most intimate place by the handsome, brutish Serge. She had been saving the darkest pleasures for her husband.
Ruby was impatient for Serge and her to start their new life. The war was near its end and she knew their side would win. What she did today was a milestone. It was important to demonstrate her loyalty to the opposition by killing Raoul, by humiliating him right until the end. It gave her a thrill and elevated her in the eyes of the other soldiers. The act also boosted her self-esteem and confidence. She could be determined, and capable of cruelty, a vital trait which weaker people have trouble mastering. She could have finished off Raoul at the site of the explosion, but it brought a ceremonial gravity to the night, and a boost in morale, when she decided, on Serge’s encouragement, to put him in front of the firing squad. It rattled her a little when Raoul survived the first round of firing, but that final bullet to the head made her feel like a hero. She had earned her stripes and the thought made her tremble with power. She knew Serge was watching from inside the command HQ. It turned her on, that bullet to Raoul’s head. And what was he whimpering about before he died? Probably that he loved her; he still loved her, the stupid fool.
Ruby thought of the house she would build in the countryside with Serge when they returned to France. She wanted three children- two boys and a girl with long blonde hair. She wanted to make her parents proud and her sister-in-law and friends jealous. She wanted the thick, arrogant cock of a French man between her legs every night and the seed of Empire inside her womb. Ruby wanted to win her own personal war with the world, not the love of a rambling poetic idiot who wanted to liberate the peasants. And if Raoul was the price she had to pay, so be it, it was an easy decision.
She looked around the diner. Serge had said he would meet her in half an hour. The place was almost empty, and strange. Her eyes swept the room, settling on a man eating dinner by himself. A man who looked like Phil Everly. Her hero, Phil Everly! But he had died months ago, how could he be sitting here in the middle of the night? Her exhilaration turned to confusion. She knew he had a country house in the area but had not visited for years because of the fighting. Perhaps the news of his death was a hoax; after all, the media got everything wrong these days. Phil was still alive! She felt a surge of joy. This was the perfect opportunity to finally talk to the man she had worshiped for many years.
Ruby checked her hair in the mirror, got off the bar stool, and nervously made her way to Phil’s table. He had tucked a white napkin underneath his double chin and was slicing a piece of steak as she approached. “Mr. Everly, I am sorry to disturb you, my name is Ruby,” she said, “Do you mind if I join you?’ She pulled out the chair opposite him, trembling with excitement, and seated herself without waiting for an answer. There was a newsbreak on the radio. A man’s voice reporting the suspected murder of a local rebel leader. Phil Everly looked up at her and kept eating. Ruby was encouraged. She couldn’t believe this was happening. What an exciting day! She was finally meeting her hero and would soon be united with the man she was going to marry. She leaned in close and could see the pores in Phil’s still-beautiful face. “You are my biggest inspiration, Mr. Everly,” she half-whispered to meet him. “I never dreamed the day would come when I would meet you.” Phil Everly took a sip of water from a frosted red glass and picked up his knife and fork again, attacking the diminishing red-brown piece of meat. Ruby took a pen out of her handbag, a smile illuminating her face. She scribbled on a napkin and pushed it towards the singer. “Would you do something for me? Something I think I deserve because I worship you?”
Raoul heard the news on the radio but his eyes were fixed on the table in front of him. Ruby had seated herself opposite Phil Everly and was trying to talk to him. He had never seen her so happy, flames dancing in her eyes in the candlelight. She was sliding a piece of paper towards him. Ruby, the woman who had walked out of his dreams into his life and now seemed to exist in another world.
Phil Everly leaned back in his chair still holding his fork and knife and finally looked at Ruby as if he had just noticed her, a sudden expression of disdain clouding his face. The moment lasted a long time. Ruby leaned even closer to him. “I’ve always loved you Phil, please do something for me that I will cherish” he heard her say. He saw Phil Everly raise himself off the chair and grab Ruby’s shoulder with his left hand. His other hand was holding the knife tightly, his fingers white and trembling. Raoul saw Ruby’s eyes widen with terror as she realized what was happening. Phil Everly jerked his elbow back and put his full weight behind his right arm. The steak knife plunged into Ruby’s heart with a dull thud and she fell over backwards in her chair with a scream in a tangle of silverware and tablecloth. The knife was embedded in her chest, a crimson ooze beginning to form on the pale blouse she was wearing. The waitress was nowhere to be seen. Phil Everly pushed the table aside and hurried out of the diner. It all took a few seconds and Raoul watched in disbelief, immobilized by shock. Ruby lay still on the floor, her yellow hair covering half her face, eyes wide open, as if in a still from a horror movie. A pool of blood was growing around her on the black and white checkered floor.
Serge looked at himself in the mirror inside the command HQ latrine. He liked to wear his uniform even after working hours. It advertised his authority and power to the local civilians he had to deal with. And powerful he was. His goal was to be commander of the northern region by the end of the year, and beyond that, who knew, the top job might be his when the aging, morphine addict General was gone. It had been a productive day. The scum rebel leader was killed without a single casualty from the opposition side. And Serge got a well-deserved bonus as well. The spoils of war. He was going to see Ruby again in a few minutes. Voluptuous, red-lipped Ruby, with her goddess hair and bourgeois dreams, who he had stolen from his enemy in a masterful move. Tricking her into joining his side had been easy. Convincing her to murder her lover took a little more time but once she was sold, she devised the plan all by herself. He was impressed by her savagery. Even Serge would have hesitated before blowing up a lover in his car, and then putting his half-dead, burnt body in front of a firing squad to finish him off. But years of repression and hunger breed strange actions in people.
Serge understood the consequences of violence more than most people. He had a reputation for cruelty but that didn’t mean the nuances of human nature were lost on him. He knew that the children of the oppressed were aflame inside. Half of them burned with the desire for revenge, to violently overthrow their oppressors, fight the righteous war and take back their freedom. Raoul, the so-called Rebel Warrior was in that camp, and while he did have a large army of followers, he was now dead. The other half burned equally intensely with the desire to acquiesce, to be accepted by their aggressors as equals, or something close to that, to have their children and become part of their lives at any cost.
Ruby was smart. She knew she was caught on the wrong side of the war and Serge represented a way out. But she was letting her fantasies impair her judgment, Serge thought, as he peed into the urinal. He was secretly amused by her obsession with marriage. She wanted to marry him, scion of one of the bluest of blue blood French families and one of the most powerful men in the army! There would be many other trophies like her, many other juicy peasant adventures before he settled down with a proper woman- one with carriage and upbringing and education. And a dowry too! But for now, he needed a woman or two to take the edge off the stresses of war. And God knows, Ruby knew how to please him. Serge remembered the wild abandon with which she gave herself to him, and a hunger began to rise in him. Tonight would be a night of true decadence.
Serge knew he had to cut Ruby off in a few days. It would not do his reputation any good to have a peasant mistress, but for now he was excited. He hurried to the diner where she was waiting. A place he had never noticed before. Strange that it was still open, at this late hour, in spite of the recent fighting. He could see through the neon lit windows, an empty chrome, pink and blue mirage. He ran his fingers through his short hair and swung open the doors. There was no one inside. Something was wrong. Then he saw Ruby lying on the floor, in an oval halo of blood. Serge knew instantly what had happened- word must have spread that Ruby had betrayed the rebel side and murdered its leader. This was her punishment. He barely paused before turning around and walking out the door. It would have been a bawdy night, Serge thought, but he better hurry back to safety before any more violence broke. Perhaps he could still arrange another woman for the night.
The distant sound of thunder rolled off the mountains like giant drum beats. Raoul felt it reverberate in his heart as he watched his enemy walk into the diner, look at the woman he had stolen, and then walk out. Anger rose in him like a flame, and a powerful feeling of loss came over him. He walked over to where Ruby lay, and kneeled on the floor. She looked beautiful, ethereal, the satin and cream goddess he had worshiped, a fallen angel in the savage circus of life. He ran his hands over her face and gathered her in his arms.
The rain had stopped and dawn was breaking as Raoul carried Ruby in his arms. The gates of the camp had been locked again and lights switched off. There was no one in sight. He could see the shapes of the mountains beginning to form in the gathering light; like elders huddled around the fire in the village he was born not far away. Ruby’s body felt light as a child as he walked towards the fields across the dirt road. Death had delivered her of the demons that weighed her down. Perhaps when they met again it would be without fear and sadness, and this time they would wander in the light of love, not in the darkness of hate.
Raoul stepped on the road and turned towards the rising sun. In the distance he saw the peasant army walking slowly towards the camp. They were still a mile or so away. And now he could hear their songs of redemption rise and fall in the dawn. He knew those songs well. He wished he could have led his people into this decisive battle, but if his death was the match that lit the fire of revolution, his work was done.
With Ruby’s head resting against his shoulder, Raoul stepped into the fields and headed towards the mountains where they would finally rest.