Ruby sat cross-legged on the grass and tried to ignore the prickly blades scratching her thighs. Chase and Greg tossed a baseball back and forth, and Ruby rolled her eyes while Greg blabbered about girls being horrible athletes.
“They ain’t got any hand-eye coordination,” he said. “Girls can’t catch for shit.”
Ruby didn’t care a thing about sports; she was only here to see Chase. He and Greg had moved to the trailer park a few months ago, and the two brothers were always together.
A grasshopper landed on Ruby’s knee, and as she flicked it away, she noticed a patch of hair on her calf she’d missed during her last shave. Her face burned at the thought of Chase seeing it.
Chase threw the ball, and it sailed over Greg’s head. They watched it roll into the weeds covering the vacant lot next door, and then Greg turned to Ruby. “Make yourself useful and go get it.” He was only fourteen, a year younger than Ruby and two years younger than Chase, but he was already bossy as hell.
“I ain’t going in there,” Ruby said. “I’m wearing shorts, and I’ll get eat up with chiggers.”
Greg stamped his foot. “Why don’t you go on home then? Nobody wants you here anyway.”
Ruby looked at Chase, her heart pounding in her throat. As the oldest, he had final say. He tossed down his glove and sighed. “Both of you stop your bitchin’. I’ll go get it.” Chase walked past Greg on long legs, his jeans low on his hips. Ruby hopped to her feet and started after him, taking two steps for every one of his. They stood at the edge of the weeds, trying to spot the ball. “If you really want me to go in after it, I will,” she said.
Chase bent over, hands braced on his thighs, and she studied his bare back. Two moles dotted the skin over his right shoulder blade, and she clasped her hands behind her to keep from touching them. He ran around all summer without a shirt, and his skin was darker than hers. His brown hair, cut military short, glistened with sweat. “Nah, you stay here,” he said. “You’re right—you’ll get eat up. There’s liable to be snakes in there too.” Chase glanced at her feet. “Christ, girl, you ain’t even wearing shoes.” He waded through the grass like it was the ocean. Ruby started to ask him if he’d ever been to the ocean, because she hadn’t, but Chase found the ball and leaned to retrieve it. He held it up and flashed a smile.
“You’ve got good eyes,” she said. Chase tossed the ball to her, and she caught it. He slid out of the weeds, sleek as a cat, and Ruby put the ball in his hand. “It’s hot as hell out here.” She wiped the sweat from her cheeks.
Chase made a circling motion with his index finger. “Turn around,” he said, and she frowned in confusion. “Go on.” Ruby turned as he moved closer. Chase lifted up her hair, and she felt him blow on the back of her neck. “Does that cool you off any?” he asked.
Ruby giggled and hated how girly she sounded. “I’m still hot.”
He licked her skin, and she let out a squeal.
“Come on, you two,” Greg called. “Quit screwing around.”
They headed back over to where Greg waited. Out of the corner of her eye, Ruby saw Chase grinning. She could still feel the moisture from his tongue on her neck. “Hey, Chase, can I use your bathroom?” she asked. Before heading out that morning, Ruby drank three glasses of water. She’d read in a magazine that drinking eight glasses a day would hydrate the skin and make it look dewy. Ruby figured her skin could use the help, but all that water made her pee like crazy.
He nodded toward the trailer. “You know where it is.”
She hoped he would offer to go inside with her. She’d been in his trailer only once, and that was when a couple of other kids were around. But Chase just threw the ball at Greg hard enough to make Greg wince when he caught it in his glove.
Ruby opened the screen door and stepped inside the darkened living room. All the blinds were closed, and as her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she spotted Chase’s mom sitting on the sofa. Her hair was dyed Raggedy Ann red and piled on top of her head, and the dress she wore was a size too small. A man wearing a business suit sat next to her, and he looked Ruby up and down, his mouth pinched in a tight line.
“I’m sorry,” Ruby blurted, tugging her tank top so it covered the little patch of skin above her shorts. “I just need to use the bathroom. Chase said it was all right.”
Chase’s mom waved a hand at her. “Of course it is, sweetheart.”
“Thanks.” Ruby darted into the kitchen and down a short hallway to the bathroom. Once inside, she double checked to make sure the door was locked and then peed as fast as she could. The bathroom could have used a good cleaning; strands of red hair clung to the dingy tile. While washing her hands, Ruby saw a pack of birth control pills on the counter beside the sink.
On her way back to the kitchen, she heard the man’s voice drift down the hall from the living room. “Don’t be that way, Tonya. Let me see you again.” Ruby froze, afraid to walk into the middle of an argument, but Chase’s mom only laughed.
“I told you this would be the last time. You’re married, and you ain’t got a thing to offer me.”
“I care about you.” The man almost shouted the words.
“That’s just your dick talkin’,” Chase’s mom said.
Ruby strode to the front door so fast, her hair flew out behind her. “Thanks,” she called over her shoulder, not looking at either of them as she fled the trailer.
Chase and Greg continued tossing the ball back and forth, and for once Ruby was glad Chase paid no attention to her. Her face was hot to the touch. “I think I’m gonna head on home,” she said.
Chase caught the ball and lowered his glove. “I’ll walk you.”
“She can walk on her own,” Greg said. He spat on the ground and scowled.
Chase left the ball and glove in the grass and made his way to Ruby. She didn’t want him to see her smiling, so she ducked her head as they started down the gravel drive. Chase’s arm brushed hers, and she closed her eyes. The blood vessels inside her lids glowed scarlet in the sunlight.
“Watch where you’re steppin’.” Chase grabbed her shoulder, and she looked down at a broken beer bottle on the ground before her. “That would tear your foot up good,” he said, kicking the bottle into the ditch.
“Thanks.” Ruby looked at the trailers surrounding them, imagining curious eyes staring through the blinds.
They reached the porch leading to her trailer door, and Chase followed her up the steps. She fumbled for the house key in her pocket. “So I guess I’ll see you later?” Her hand trembled as she slipped the key into the lock.
“Ain’t you gonna invite me in?” he asked.
Ruby turned and found him right behind her. Her eyes fixed on the little hollow at the bottom of his throat. Even though they stood in the shade, her breath came faster. She thought of her daddy’s warning that he’d tan her hide if he ever caught her fooling around with a boy. “My dad don’t allow me to have anyone over when he’s not here.”
Chase didn’t move. “What about your mom? Ain’t she home?”
“My mom died when I was little.”
“I’m sorry.” He glanced around. “Who’s gonna tell your dad if you invite me in? Ain’t nobody watching.”
Ruby raised her chin and made her eyes look wide and apologetic. “I’d better not.”
She thought he’d be offended, maybe even angry, but he only smiled. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” He crowded her against the door and put his arms up on either side of her. “I promise I’ll be on my best behavior.”
Ruby’s brain floundered for a clever response. She remembered his mom’s easy laugh and teasing words as she kept that nicely dressed man dancing on a string.
Chase kissed her neck just below her jaw, and she tried not to squirm. “Invite me in,” he said. “I know you’re a nice girl, Ruby. Let me show you how nice I can be.”
Ruby stared at the oak tree in the yard. Its leaves shuddered on the breeze. “That’s just your dick talkin’,” she whispered in his ear.
He jerked away and slapped her face, not as hard as he could have, but with enough force to make her cry out and cower from him. “You need to watch your mouth.” His voice shook, and he pointed a finger at her. “That’s how trash talks, and I didn’t take you for trash.”
“I’m not!” She sucked in a breath to keep from bursting into tears.
“Sure could have fooled me.” Chase turned and bounded off the porch.
“Chase, wait.” Ruby started after him. “I didn’t mean it. You can come in.” He slowed but didn’t turn around. “I want you to.”
Finally he faced her, arms folded over his chest. “You need to ask like a proper lady. Say, ‘Won’t you please come in, Chase?’”
She looked at her dirty feet and forced the words from her mouth. They caught on her teeth and tongue, and the garbled noise didn’t make sense to her ears. Chase smiled, satisfied, and walked over to her. He put his hot palm against her back and guided her toward the door. Her eyes narrowed as she turned the knob. Peering between her lashes, she imagined she could see the string tethering her hand to his. He gave it a tug, making Ruby dance, and the front door swung open.