The winding Ozark roads spat with dust under grinding wheels as she whipped around the banked curves, settling in the late-afternoon light as she shot over narrow bridges and fired past the grazing roadside deer.
The parents and teachers had called her Ricky Rocket in high school, mostly for what she did on the football field. Everyone with half a brain and a decent engine knew it was because no one, and she meant no one, could touch her on the road.
Most people called her crazy. Some called her a psycho, said she had a deathwish, that she’d ruin her scholarship. But four wheels had never let her down racing a rusted-out blue ‘84 Chevy pickup, and they didn’t let her down in a black, military-issue Benz.
Decades had passed, the world had changed, but she still let the windows down, stuck her head out the window, and howled like a defiant wolf under the full moon.
They couldn’t touch her then, and they couldn’t touch her now.
Grinning like the devil, Ricki threw the Benz into low gear, engine-braking around the cliffside curve along White River and whipping the beast of a machine up to full tilt past the riverbanks to the long flat road that led all the way home.
The pine trees blurred into the green and gold and blue of the late evening, into a moment of weight and weightlessness as the Benz revved to full voice.
Fifty. Seventy. Eighty. Faster. Precision engineering devoured backcountry road and demanded more, surging off the road at the hilltop and slamming, screaming back onto the pavement on the other side.
Roaring engines turned to squealing tires as the Benz struggled for grip, whipping once, twice, three times into a full fishtail before brakes met engine, tire renegotiated with the pavement, and friction once again began to do its job.
Hair whipped back, eyes roaring and wild, but foot decisively less firm on the pedal, Ricki tapped the Benz affectionately.
“Can’t get too ahead of ourselves, can we,” she said. The Benz’s engine purred bashfully, like a young bear put back in his place. There was still something old to this place, something that no time or tech could tame.
The Benz was still pouting as they crested the last hill before the gate, so she left it running while she hopped out, boots crunching into the windswept dirt as the breeze raced from the violet-shaded mountains down through the trees lit in filtering lights of late summer, across the rolling hills of long grasses just starting to turn gold.
The gate hadn’t changed since she’d been a kid, just some wire wrapped around a fence post that was easier slunk through than opened if you were on foot. It wouldn’t stop a car, and it definitely wouldn’t stop any of the cows if they were at all determined to get out, but all the same, the land beyond that fence was safe, and it always would be.
Shifting the Benz over that sacred gateway to a place called home, Ricki exchanged a look with an uninterested cow.
“Do you recognize me?” she asked. The cow, much like others of his ilk, had no response.
It wasn’t likely. She had been… well, different the last time she’d been home.
Sliding back onto the handmade leather seats, she clicked the dust off her boots, but at a disapproving look from the cow put her head down and laughed, before decisively tapping out a series of dusty bootprints on the freshly-washed carpet floor. Maybe when she got to the driveway she’d do a few donuts, really break the Benz into the Missouri mud.
Setting the car back into gear, she set off down the winding road across town to the house, nestled just against the treeline that vaguely separated theirs from the Winstons. Supposedly there had been a creek that set the property line a couple of eons ago, but it sure as hell wasn’t there anymore. The Winstons were good people though, so it didn’t make much difference.
The Swellmars, now they were another story. God, what she wouldn’t have given for a combat squad, armor, local attached agency, and some questionable legal basis to break in and scare the shit out of them. Ooh, or if they’d been outside of the U.S., then all bets were off.
“Or you could just knock on the door and call them a bunch of assholes like a normal human would,” Ricki muttered. “Tell Rich you fucked his daughter back in high school, ya know, the whole nine yards. Wonder what Daisy’s been up to…”
Daisy had been cute, but a total airhead. The type of girl you could knock up and get stuck with for the rest of your life in a town like this. Ricki was pretty sure someone had. Maybe she’d run a profile on the girl, get the scoop. It was always fun to see how much of a threat someone posed in the algorithm.
“Or you could just knock on the door and ask her how she’d been like a normal human would,” Ricki said. “Christ.”
Slamming the brakes on, Ricki took a few deep breaths in and out. It was no coincidence where she’d stopped, just on the other side of the little hill, before the pond and the house. When she’d been younger, this was where she’d always had to slip the car into first gear, turn off the lights, and ease it over the hill to make sure she didn’t wake up Mom and Pop and Danny.
“You’re home now,” she said, staring at the hill. Her hands were shaking. She had faced dictators, terrorists, mafia heads, KGB, all without her hands shaking.
But with the timidness of a young boy sneaking home late at night, she crept over the hill, feeling the Benz touch and go beneath her as they crested the hill.
The drive was still streaked with some of that red river dirt that washed down from the mountains, a gravel arc winding around the pond towards the weathered old farmhouse that had sheltered three generations of Martins before her, and might very well shelter another three after her.
She was an aged old maid, that farmhouse, groaning during the winters, sweating and sweltering during the summers, but she was cozy and safe, a creaking wood porch on either side perfect for sweet tea or sandwiches or sunset beers, and a cracked whitewashed exterior that you could tell a few people had tried to add a splash of color to over the years but gave up on.
Some of the tiles on the roof were missing, and as she pulled in next to the red pickup which only went by that name — the only hunk of junk older than the ‘84 Chevy — she could see a few slats busted up where a cow wandered too closeby. All exactly like she’d left it.
The Benz went quiet reluctantly, and as she swung out of her seat she made sure to kick up as much dust from the drive as she could on her way to the trunk. He’d come out of this tougher than he had before.
Pop was gonna give her shit for her wardrobe. She’d done her best to stick rustic, brought out her toughest blue jeans, most rugged boots, toughest leather jacket with a simple shirt underneath, but there was a shine, a quality, and a class to them all. A veneer. She had it too.
Around here, people wore their hair down, their clothes simple and dirty and dusty, and their bellies a little bit round. In the agency, you didn’t. She had her hair close-cropped as it had been since the military, and every cut of the clothes sharp, sleek, and dangerous, like the weapon that walked underneath them.
Almost an hour had passed, and cigarette butts littered the ground around the hand-carved swing on the hill behind the house when she heard the back door swing open behind her. Pop had built that swing as a boy. He’d proposed to Mom under this tree. They’d gotten married there, on that sunlit hillside looking out across the hills towards the sunset, and if he had his way he’d be buried beneath that old oak so everybody would know he was still around.
Taking a particularly long drag, Ricki settled shaking hands, putting an arm up on the back of the chair and leaning back like she was deep in thought. No need to spot targets and whip around like a freak.
Danny reached the top of the hill before he stopped, much too far for anyone to reasonably think they’d been unheard, but it had been eight years after all. That, and she’d been reassured by Digiops surveillance when Danny first contacted her that, yes, he was her little brother and yes, he was still just as gentle and sweet to friends and family as he’d been when she left.
“Um, hey… sis,” he said timidly. “It’s really good to see you Rick… um, do you still go by Ricky? You’re listed with an ‘I’ on the website, but I wasn’t sure, and I know that sometimes people like to change their names after-”
Deep, belly laughs from the chair interrupted him as Ricki doubled over, dropping her cigarette, reaching to pick it up, then tossing it to the ground and breaking into a sprint towards her younger brother. Caught like a deer on 29, he half raised his arms out into a hug and half-flinched before Ricki caught him in a perfect form-tackle, lifting him up and running around the tree.
“DANNYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY,” she trumpeted, ignoring her brother’s feeble attempts to swat at her and demand to be put down. After two laps around the tree and the swing she dropped him on the ground, cackling like a maniac, and after pulling him roughly up to his feet gave him a hug half meant to squeeze the life out of him and the other half to never let him go again.
“Yes, my name is still Ricki,” she said. “Yes, it’s got an ‘I’, but you can figure out all the pronouns later. I’ll always be Ricki, and you’ll always be my little brother.”
“You’ll always be that superhero Ricky Rocket to me,” he said. “No matter what letter it’s spelled with.”
“How very progressive of you,” Ricki said.
“Look, dude… I mean dudette-”
“Dude as a phrase is definitely gender-neutral now, I told you not to fret the freakin’ pronouns,” she said, cuffing him on the head with a wink. Danny flushed and looked away. He’d always gotten flustered easily.
“Look, I haven’t seen you since you left for Afghanistan,” Danny said. “I don’t care if it’s a big brother or a big sister coming back, I just missed you, Ricky.”
He closed the distance between them and gave her a huge hug.
“So what, Mom and Pop decided they didn’t want to see me?” Ricki asked.
“Nah, they’re just in town getting groceries. You showed up earlier than we thought,” Danny said.
“I thought I’d be able to resist, but coming out of Nashville and starting to hit those hills I just put the pedal to the metal,” Ricki answered.
“In that Benz, I can see why,” Danny said. “What is that, 2021? Guess being a private pilot pays pretty damn well.”
“Yeah, it’s a living,” Ricki answered, reaching into her coat pocket and pulling out another cigarette to light. “A little less exciting than flying a bomber, but it’s a living.”
She saw a glint in Danny’s eyes, quirked an eyebrow, offered a cigarette, but Danny shook it off. Shrugging, she pocketed the pack, dragging deep. After enough time waiting for Danny to jump in and just ask what was on his mind, she flicked his ear.
“You can go ahead and ask me,” she said.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Danny said. “I feel like I’ve missed so much of your life. I feel like you’ve gone through so much, and I couldn’t be there for you like you were always there for me. I mean, you were a hero, and then you got fucked over, and now you’re… you got out of here.”
“Some paths we have to walk alone,” Ricki said. Danny dimmed a bit, but Ricki slapped him on the shoulder. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t share the story.”
Ricki kicked back, looking out at the sunset.
“You know the most of it. Turned down the big D1 scholarship, enlisted at 18, got the fuck out of here. I just couldn’t be who people wanted me to be. I tried so hard. I tried to be that man everyone wanted me to be. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.
Don’t feel bad. I can see you getting guilty. I hid it from everyone, I locked it up inside, and I went the one place I felt like I could just put my head down, follow instructions, and do some good. And I did. Fought my way through the system to train as a pilot, saved some lives, got a few medals-”
“-four silver stars and a Congressional Medal of Honor aren’t just a few medals.”
Ricki almost bit through her cigarette. Taking a deep breath, she gave the look only older siblings can give their young ones, and continued her story.
“Got a few shiny stars, and no, the CMH never went through,” she said. “Was shortlisted, might have gotten it, but you know what happened late 2017. In the heat of war, you either learn who you are or you lose yourself, and I sure as hell learned who I was on the inside. My unit, they didn’t give a fuck, but our dumpster fire of a president sure as hell did.”
There was a moment of silence.
“We… uh… we…,” Danny said.
“You voted for him? Yeah, a lot of people did, I don’t hold it against ya,” she said. “I try not to hold things against people, though it’s hard sometimes. Transgenderism… it’s hard to understand if you don’t have it. Hell, it took going through a warzone for me to accept it.”
Danny hung his head.
“I just… you were always a superhero to me Ricki,” he said. “You left, and I didn’t know why, but I knew the whole time that it was for a good reason.”
Ricki put an arm around her younger brother, pulling him in close.
“And then you went to war, and you were a real superhero,” he said. “And they took that away from you.”
Ricki pulled Danny closer, chewing the cigarette.
“They didn’t give me a medal,” she said. “But they can’t take shit away from me. Not the time I spent there, the lives I saved, the bonds I forged. That motherfucker will die, he’ll end up in jail, I don’t care what. The good we did, that’ll live on.”
Danny snuggled up, and for a few quiet moments, they stared out at the rolling gold-and-green hills, watching the golden sky slowly turn a fiery red. Somewhere over the hills, that blue ‘84 Chevy was making its way towards home, and they’d give Ricki the same hugs, the same love. Of that, she was sure.
But just like those clothes and that car, there would always be a veneer.
What was she going to tell them? That she’d never been a private pilot? That she’d beaten to death the men who served her dishonorable discharge and only escaped life in prison thanks to the Agency’s intervention? That all that remained for a disgraced war hero was a life tied to honeypots and trickery and backstabbing and murder, used as a tool for her strength and her skill and her fucking testosterone cause they didn’t trust “real” female agents?
But fuck ‘em. She didn’t fight for them. She didn’t fight for what her country was. She fought for what it could be… one day.
That familiar rumble of the old blue ‘84 Chevy filled the air, a hum filled with a greater sense of home than any of Pop’s bad jokes, than any of Mom’s home cooking.
Eight years ago, when she’d been chained to a desk ready for a bullet in the head, the greybeard had asked her.
Can you keep a secret?
And for them, she could.