It’s July 3, 1976, the beginning of America’s bicentennial weekend, and everyone seems to be celebrating their freedoms except eighteen-year-old runaway Michael Ryder. Fresh from rural Pennsylvania, Michael is doing whatever and whoever it takes to get to San Francisco, where he hopes to find a new life with the freedom to love without fear.
While hitchhiking, a mysterious, tattooed biker named Snake offers him a ride west—on the back of his customized Harley chopper. During their journey across Route 66, Snake introduces Michael to new and steamy pleasures, leaving Michael aching for more than just a physical relationship. But a violent encounter with a cruel biker gang and a harrowing secret from Snake’s military past might destroy their unlikely relationship long before they reach the end of the road.
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“YOU sure you have to go, Mikey?”
I cringed at the nickname the trucker had taken the liberty to give me. My mother had always called me Mikey rather than Michael, but after running away I preferred to go by my last name, Ryder. It sounded tougher, or so I imagined.
Unsure why I’d told this trucker my real name, I offered him a pretty smile anyway. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
He gave me a pleading look. “Just one more for the road?”
This time my smile was real. Karl might be old—like forty—but he had been a wonderful lover. We’d extended the eight-hour drive from Pittsburgh into eleven, stopping four times to fuck or fool around. But I’d already stayed longer than I’d intended, because of the heavy rain that had swept through the area. Staying dry in Karl’s semitruck held more appeal than being stuck in the rain on the highway in the middle of Indiana.
Not that I minded the delay. Though only the fourth man I’d been with, Karl had taught me I pretty much knew nothing about sex. In my defense, I’d only learned about the birds and the bees, not what two “bees” could get up to, so all my moves definitely had room for improvement.
“I really do need to go, Karl.” I glanced outside his cab to the well-lit truck stop with both a Gulf station and a carryout store. The sky had been dark a while, and if I dallied any longer, I might be stuck here for the night. I doubted much traffic came through this close to midnight, but there was still activity at the place, and I couldn’t afford to miss out on a potential ride.
“I understand,” he told me with reluctance.
Before he could talk me into anything further, I said my good-byes and thanked him again. He kissed me once more, stroking my cheek, his gaze soaking in my face. I reached for the door, but he took my hand. “Thanks again, Mikey.”
Feeling the folded bills in my palm, I nodded. “Thanks. Bye.”
Guilt burned my scalp as I slipped down from the cab onto the wet pavement, my sneakers splashing water onto the edge of my jeans. I winced from the slight hitch in my side, but there was little to be done about that. Illumination from the lights of the small complex and the wisps of moonlight escaping the heavy cloud cover lit my way as I moved back toward civilization.
I glanced down to see how much money Karl had given me. Twenty dollars. Sniffing in pleasant surprise, I continued on to the carryout, hoping they might sell more than snack foods.
That was the first time I saw him.
Six feet of mean, denim-clad biker.
The man strode across the lot with purpose and intent, his tight, worn jeans and a brown leather vest—no shirt—hugging a tall, muscular body. Light from the windows of the carryout reflected across the puddles on the ground and stretched his shadow out, long and exaggerated behind him. His wild blond hair had been rendered an odd yellow under the overhead fluorescents, and he carried a black duffel bag. Even from a distance, I could see the extensive tattoos decorating his bare arms.
Never before had I seen anyone… So. Damn. Sexy. Though it had been less than an hour since I’d been with Karl, warmth simmered in my middle. I didn’t know if I should attribute it to desire.
As if he felt my gaze, the biker slowed and turned at my approach. He paused halfway between the gas station and carryout, watching me leave the area where the semitrucks parked. His sudden scowl told me he suspected what I’d done to earn the cash I’d been counting. Young bucks like me didn’t fit the trucker profile, so there could only be two reasons I would be there. Sex or drugs—neither of which made me look very good.
Stuffing the bills into my pocket, I hunched into my jacket and averted my eyes. If he assumed I’d been selling drugs, he might jump me, thinking I had a bunch of money. Sadly, that would be a better fate than option number two. At a middle of nowhere truck stop off Interstate 69, there were way too many places to hide the body of some little fruit if the guy figured out the truth and took a turn against me.
Such a fate was always a possibility for someone like me.
Trying to walk nonchalantly and not draw any further attention, I readjusted my backpack and headed toward the relative safety of the carryout. Though pretty sure the threat of rain had long since passed, I didn’t like the idea of being in the dark with a biker who might be wondering how I’d attracted my last ride.
As I passed the guy, he didn’t advance on me or address me, thankfully, but I felt the weight of his gaze following my movement. He studied me intently, and I wondered if he could see right through the façade of confidence I was trying so hard to keep up. Face hot with sudden tumultuous feelings of excitement, danger, and lust, I kept my head down, my heart racing as I opened the door.
What the hell had he been staring at me for?
Once inside, I took a relieved breath, grateful to be free of the stranger’s intense scrutiny. Looking around to get my bearings, I noted the place was just like many other carryouts I’d seen in my eighteen years. It sold maps, snacks, hot dogs and fries, and various emergency items from Band-Aids to engine oil. Unfortunately, the hot food had been shut down for the night, so I bought a bottle of Coke and Doritos from the clerk. I almost snagged up some candy too but decided against it. It might be a while before I found another ride as kind as Karl. The twenty dollars in addition to the forty-two bucks I had left would not get me as far as other things I had to offer.
Though it felt wrong to take the money, I desperately needed it, and Karl had seemed to need to give it to me. I had a feeling it had been a very long time for him and I’d rewarded him as much as he’d helped me. He’d gotten me across two state lines. Home for him was near my current location, an hour northeast of Indianapolis. I wished he’d been able to take me to the city where I could’ve found a church or a YMCA to crash at. During my brief stay at the shelter in Pittsburgh, I’d heard I could find like-minded guys at the Y. I could’ve asked Karl to take me to Indianapolis—another blow job would’ve gotten me what I wanted—but it felt wrong when he’d already brought me farther than any other ride, placing me closer to my goal.
Using the bottle opener on the side of the wall, I cracked open my Coke. There were bathrooms to my left and two rows of orange plastic booths on the right. After settling myself into an empty one, I ate my meager dinner.
I’d seen a segment on the news last summer about a neighborhood called the Castro in San Francisco where an openly homosexual man named Harvey Milk had been running for a local political office. My mother had crossed herself, making her usual pious remarks about what an abomination the queers were. Though I tried to tune the constant slurs out, they always stung, each one burned indelibly onto my young mind. After seeing the program, I knew I had to get to California, escape from my sheltered life in the once-thriving coal-mining town of Windber in eastern Pennsylvania. The only cool thing about my hometown was that Alan Freed, the man who coined the phrase “rock and roll,” had once spun records there.
It had always been difficult to breathe there, to live in such a suffocating place. Even when my family didn’t know about me, affection was often shown at the end of a fist. After the last mine closed in ’62, leaving countless men unemployed, my father spent his days and his nights in a bottle. Things got especially difficult after I learned there were things I could never change about myself, no matter how hard I prayed or fought it. For years I had lived in constant fear my family would learn my secret and the hostility from him would get worse.
Now such fears were gone. Well, almost. I caressed my side where a faint bruising remained visible under my shirt, the rib still healing and tender. I had escaped hell and was headed for a better future in a city where I could have a real chance for success in life. And I could only imagine that in San Francisco the men would be as welcoming as the weather.
I raised the glass bottle to my lips in order to hide my grin.
Crossing my legs, I drank the sweet fizzy beverage and surveyed the other late-night travelers in the establishment, wondering which one would be tolerable if he wanted to exchange sex for a ride. Maybe if I was lucky, one of them might be bored and would enjoy having someone to talk to without expecting anything in return. I doubted that, though.
My ass and my pretty face were all anybody seemed interested in.
The small hope that this sort of shit might not be my entire future offered little relief from the guilt threatening to surface once more. Until things changed, this was who and what I was.
The sinner and whore my mother had named me.
A man and woman sat in one booth, whispering together. I assumed the ’70 baby-yellow Impala sedan parked out front belonged to them. They fit the profile of the once-cool-car turned family vehicle, a subtle but desperate plea to hold on to a fading youth. Three of the men in the carryout wore the flannel shirts, wizened beards, and ball caps of most truckers I’d seen. One of them read the paper, the other two sipped coffee, smoking and talking quietly.
Not counting Karl’s, I’d noticed seven semitrucks in the parking lot, along with two cars and two motorcycles. The customized Harley chopper had to be ridden by someone equally powerful and badass, like the tattooed biker—he wasn’t the type to be riding the Honda CB350 beside it. That probably belonged to the clerk or the guy operating the pumps at the Gulf station. If I took the biker and the two employees off the table, it left me with four potential ride options. The couple or one of the three truckers. The other four semis no doubt had their drivers tucked neatly into the beds behind the driver seats, and there was no way I would risk knocking on their doors to hitch a ride. Most of these tough men rode armed.
Not the best odds all around, but at least it was something.
Bells jingled at the door, signaling the arrival of a new patron. No surprise, it was the biker with that blond hair so thick and wavy it would make Robert Redford jealous. In the brighter lighting, his body was even more magnificent. Cheeks heating, I quickly turned away, lest he catch me staring. He walked toward the bathrooms, not offering anyone a glance, the duffel bag still clutched in his fist. The clerk and the three truckers eyed him warily.
Not that I could blame them—the guy looked like trouble.
I crumpled up my chip bag and pitched it, glancing at the clock on the wall. 11:52 p.m. on a Friday night. I should’ve been leaving the Arcadia, the old theater in town, or a party with my former best pal Tommy Freeport, not scoping truckers and thinking which one would be my easiest meal ticket. Thanks to Karl, I had enough money in my pocket for now, but I still had to watch every penny. Gone were the days of easy living when I could put most of my paycheck from Mike’s Garage into the bank to save for college. Had no clue what I wanted to study, but I had to put education on the back burner.
Now my life was about surviving and getting to California.
Within two weeks of my family finding out about me, I’d helped myself to the cash Mom kept in the cookie jar, including the brand-new two-dollar bill she’d been saving, and scrounged together what little money I had left. Mom had emptied the bank account started for me when I was a kid to prevent just such an escape after the “incident.” I took my thumb to the curb with fifty-eight bucks in my pocket. It’d been easy to get to Johnstown, where I took a bus to Pittsburgh. Needing to conserve funds, I found a shelter in a shitty neighborhood before I hitched to a truck stop on the highway, looking for a ride west. Three weirdos later and a few things I wanted to forget, I’d landed in Indiana. Far from home, yet not. These men and the flat-open spaces with their spattering of cottonwoods and maples lining the roads were not that dissimilar than the people and the mountains back home. The white farm houses and the barns painted red before I was born might bear different farmers’ names than the ones in Pennsylvania, but they sported the same Mail Pouch Tobacco sign or had been painted over with Bicentennial shit.
Shit. Yeah, that’s what it was.
It was 1976. America, the Land of Liberty, had been around two hundred years, and the entire country was in a tizzy celebrating. Uncle Sam smiled from posters hung in drugstore windows, flags flew high on poles in millions of front lawns, and every town from New York to Los Angeles had planned giant festivities for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. America had something to celebrate.
Everyone was proud to be an American. We were the most powerful country in the world. We’d escaped the tyranny of England, freed the slaves, and rescued the Jews from Hitler. We even put a man on the moon. Maybe the whole Vietnam thing hadn’t exactly worked out for us, but we had given both women and blacks equal rights. Sure, blacks didn’t have everything whites did, but then again neither did I.
As a white boy who liked to suck cock, I sure as hell was not equal. Therefore the Bicentennial did not inspire in me the same patriotic fervor it did in the rest of my fellow countrymen. How could it when I had to live in secret, being hated and scorned for how I had been born?
I squashed such sour thoughts and downed the rest of my Coke. It was midnight now, and I didn’t want to sleep in the truck stop—that is, if they didn’t kick me out. I needed to procure myself a ride pronto.
Bracing myself, I headed toward the two truckers having a smoke in the booth kitty-corner from me.
“You guys headed west?” I asked, keeping my face as innocent as possible. “I’m looking for a lift.”
No, they were going north. The third man was driving back east. The couple with the Impala, after one scowl from the woman, didn’t seem inclined to offer anything either.
Looked like I was hitching.