While learning the ropes from a crafty Jazz Age bank robber, a young stowaway discovers their authentic self, a hidden gift, and that there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads…
The fox roads run through October, no matter where you start or where you end.
It doesn’t matter if you’re coming across Lake Michigan from Indiana as the ice cracks under your tires or if you’re trying to make it to Cicero on roads that were never paved for cars. The fox roads don’t care about winter snow or summer storms, and maybe they bow to the gods of Tornado Alley, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The fox roads take you through October, before they cut down the corn and before the trees undress for winter, and they can take you anywhere.
All you need, she told me, is a reason to get out.
On a bright morning in late August, Chinese Jack and Tonkin Jill rode into Hooper, Indiana in a cherry-red Model A and pulled up to Third Bank and Trust like they owned it. I watched from the alley as Jack came around the car to hand Jill down. She stood on the running board for a moment, tiny and neat as a pin in her ivy-green dress and her black gloves, her face marked for me even across the street by sooty mascara and a mouth painted on with scarlet.She looked the street up and down before she stepped off, and for just a brief moment, our eyes met. If she cared, she gave no sign, and she walked ahead of Jack into the bank.
The second the door swung closed behind them I made up my mind, and I was across the street, ignoring the rear door to grab at the handle on the front passenger’s side. It wasn’t locked, and I climbed in just as a shot rang out from the bank.
I threw myself over the seats into the back, squeezing behind the driver’s side on the floor as the shouting started. It was one of the newer sedans, plenty of room especially if you’ve been skipping meals for a few weeks, and I rolled up tight against the front seat.
By the time I counted five, there was another shot, and then fresh screaming, and by a count of twenty Jack and Jill came out themselves, him with the gun and her with the loot. We tore out of Hooper like the town was on fire behind us, Jill laughing as if she was at the carnival.
“Fuckers built a goddamn hunter’s blind in the loft,” Jack snarled as the car hit the frontage road. “What the fuck, they turned the lobby into a goddamn fucking shooter’s gallery. Lai, for fuck’s sake, stop laughing!”
She couldn’t, I don’t think, as hard as she was going, and all I could hear was her laugh, shrill and loud and helpless at how funny the world was that would dare shoot at her.
“Lai, Lai, goddamnit! Right or left?”
She only laughed harder, which made him swear again. Somewhere behind them, behind us, the cops were rallying to run us to ground, and they would, if Jack couldn’t make the river. The papers were full of the smoldering smashup when they got Hennessy and Jones in Bowling Green, and one that I saw got Hennessey’s raw face as well, all the meat gone from the right as he flew and skidded twenty feet from the wreckage.
“Lai, fucking left or right?”
She held up a hand, waving him away as if he were asking if madame wanted to see the brunch menu, and through it all, she kept on laughing, laughing, until a shot rang out behind us and Jack swerved on the road before holding steady again.
“Left! Left, I think!”
Jack swore again, something foreign and mean as venom, and he hauled the wheel so hard to the left that I nearly toppled to one side, even as wedged as I was. Another shot, and this one shattered glass, sending a shower of glittering shards down on me. A hot sting of pain creased my cheek, and some part of me knew that it would hurt much worse later, if there was a later.
There was an almighty bump, and the shocks groaned as if they were dying underneath us before all four wheels sat straight on the road. In the front, Lai slouched back in the seat, catching her breath with gaspy little sighs.
“Calm down, we’re fine now.”
“The fuck we are,” he said without heat. “Tell me where to turn off.”
“Not for a while. Just drive.”
“Yeah, yeah. Count the cash.”
That was about as good as it was going to get for me, I decided, drawing the Colt out of my jacket pocket. I came up in the back seat like a jack out of the box, lit up like my head was on fire, and I shoved the barrel of the Colt against the back of Jack’s neck, high up where the cradle of his skull met his spine.
“What the fuck—”
“27 Allison Road,” I spat.
“What the fuck—”
“The deed,” I said through gritted teeth. “The deed for 27 Allison Road, where the fuck is it?”
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you better put that gun the fuck down before I break your fucking face and—”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up, I just want—”
I didn’t get to what I wanted because suddenly there was something sharp slipped under my chin, there so fast that I felt the trickle of blood before I realized I had been cut.
“If you put a hole in his head, em yêu, all the jokes will fall out, and I’ll never laugh again.”
“I don’t care!”
“Oh, I think you do. I think you are very afraid right now, and that’s all right. So put that ridiculous thing down, and we can talk about Allison Road, all right?”
I might not have. I had been awake for two days, I hadn’t eaten for three, and some town boys beat me up the night before. My hands holding the Colt shook, and my thoughts were broken. I might have shot him just to see the jokes run out like grain from a torn bag, but then the light went out as if I had closed my eyes, so fast and sudden that I shouted.
It was an enveloping kind of dark, so absolute I couldn’t see Jack or Lai or the car we rode in. Instead, there were my hands numb on the gun, the trickle of blood that hit the collar of my dress and soaked in, the touch of the knife at my throat.
“Put it down,” Lai said, and as the moon came out and silvered the naked trees beyond the glass, I lowered my gun, and she put down her knife.
The police had shot out the back window, and the gust of cold, wet, autumn air convinced me better than anything that we had left April behind us. It was a heavy, clinging kind of cold, one that decided it lived in your bones and then wouldn’t leave until spring, if it left at all. I shivered convulsively in my thin dress, scraped myself up worse from the glass shards that clung like frost to the velour seats.
Driving one-handed, Jack skimmed out of his jacket and passed it back to me. I wrapped his jacket thick around my arm and knocked out the shards of glass from the frame, pushing them out onto the road behind us where they glittered briefly before they were lost to the darkness.
“Sweep the glass off the seat so you have a place to sit,” Lai directed. “When we stop, you can clear out the rest.”
“Oh, can I?” I retorted, and she turned to rest her chin on the seat, giving me a wrinkle-nosed smile that wanted very much to worm its way into my heart.
“I’d like it if you did. Don’t you want to do what I like?”
“Lai, turn up ahead. And stop bothering with the little brat, we’re dropping her as soon as we hit the state line.”
“Turn right. And maybe.”
Nervously, I fingered the Colt in my lap. It was an ugly lump of metal, surplus from the Great War like the man I’d stolen it from, like so much of Meade.
“Where are we?” I asked, and Jack, never taking his eyes from the road, was the one who answered.
“We’re running,” he said shortly. “We’re trying not to get caught or wrecked or gunned down or brought in and hanged.”
We came out of the night more slowly than we had gone in. The moon set, it got cold enough that I could breathe steam like a dragon, but then the sky got, not lighter, but less dark, less absolutely black. It started so slowly I could barely be sure if it started at all, and then it came on all in a rush, deepest violet to frailest blue, and through the trees, the sky in front of us lit up.
“We’re driving east,” I said suddenly.
Lai was sleeping slumped against the door; it was Jack who answered.
“You were making for the river. I know you were.”
He snorted, not unkindly.
“Kid, what you know is worth fuckall out here.” He yawned, adding, “Me too. She’s the only one who knows these roads, and she’s cracked like a plate.”
“We were going to cross the Wabash,” I insisted, because I knew the Wabash. My parents had come down to Meade by ferry on the Wabash before I was born. It would have been faster to take the train, but of course they weren’t allowed. Until they bought the store when I turned eight, we’d lived in a falling-down shack on the shores of the Wabash River, and I knew its swampy banks and green fireflies and lantern ghosts as well as I knew the alphabet. Like I knew P came before Q, I knew we had been making for the Wabash to cross west into Illinois. I knew the Wabash, and I knew that the sun should have been behind us if it was rising.
Dawn cracked the sky like an egg, and then with a hard bump that made me grunt, we were rolling along a wide wooden bridge, sharing it with a six-ox team and a wagoner who gave us a baleful look as we rumbled by.
I looked beyond the bridge’s low rail to see the expanse of water below us, a silty amber-brown shading to bright white where it stretched north and south. The Wabash was big enough to flood and ruin lives when it had a mind to, but this river would see the bottomlands and the lives that clung to it as its rightful property, never thinking twice about reaching for what it was owed.
“That look like the Wabash to you?” Jack asked, and I shook my head.
“No. What river is it?”
“That’s the Mississippi. Up near St. Paul, maybe. We’ll find out when we stop.”
He sounded tired, and with Lai sleeping like the dead and uninterested in telling us more about where we had come to, I touched the Colt again, staring at the back of Jack’s head. Lai’s hair was sleek and straight like mink, but Jack’s hair was more like mine, inclined to wave with a curl at his nape. I imagined the barrel of the gun nestled there, asking my questions more sensibly this time.
Instead, I curled up against the back door in the cleanest corner of the back seat, my face inches away from the glass to watch the Mississippi roll away beneath us.
We passed by two gas stations, running the needle perilously close to E before we found one with a Black man at the meter, and Jack went to pay him while I dutifully swept out the seat like Lai had told me I would. For her part, she came out to perch on the hood of the car, a lit cigarette dangling from her fingers as she gazed off into the middle distance, her eyes half lidded.
As strange a trio as we made, the attendant studiously kept his eyes on his work. Jack and Lai looked like they had just stepped out of some fancy knees-up in Chicago for all that it was a day’s ride away, and they might have picked me up somewhere along the way to wipe up their spills. Still, Jack paid for the gas and then slipped the man three bills from his wallet with a certain tilt of his head.
“You never saw us.”
The man snorted, hanging up the nozzle from the pump.
“Never looked up to see your damn faces.”
He hadn’t, either, and I realized much later that we were close to the North Woods, the warren of caves and thickets where downstate outlaws went when Cook County turned up the heat. The cops came through sometimes, collecting the eyes of gas-station attendants and diner waitresses, and the best way to get your eye back, Jack told me later, was to empty it straight out into the dirt, show them that it was just tires and shoes and asphalt, maybe a few tit pics to distract them.
“The law says they can only take one, but it don’t say how good your eye needs to work when they give it back,” he said, handing me his cigarette.
“You still got two good eyes,” I said, and he grinned at me, showing off the chipped front tooth that gave him such a nasty sharp bite.
“Yeah? Next ask me if they’re both mine,” he said, and up close I could see now that one wasn’t as dark as the other, whiskey-brown to coffee-black.
That was still a month down the road, however, and when the attendant went back into the station, Jack turned to me.
“So this is where you step off,” he said. “You can probably hitch a ride, or—”
“No,” I said, reaching for the Colt, but he held it up, stone-faced. I hadn’t felt him take it off me, and I went red with humiliation and rage.
“No,” I said again, but he shook his head.
“End of the line, kid, and—”
“What’s Allison Road?”
“Shut up. I’m not talking to you.”
She turned on the hood of the car, her legs in her sheer black stockings crossed at the ankle as if she was in church. She gave me a look up and down, and it was strange how she did it, as if she had already made up her mind about me, but still wanted to know if she was right.
“So what’s on Allison Road?” she asked again, and I glared at her.
“It’s my parents’ store in Meade,” I said, my hands fisting by my sides. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jack sighting along the barrel of the Colt and making a face as he did so. “The bank took it, and then you robbed the bank.”
“Did we?” she asked, interested, as if I was telling her about something that someone else did.
I went into the back seat where I had left the gunnysack carrying everything I owned except for the gun. I came up with a crumpled sheet of newsprint, and I threw it down in front of her. Jack sighed and went to pick it up, and smoothed it out to read the headline that I had memorized:
“Chinese Jack and Tonkin Jill Take Meade First Trust!”
Below in smaller letters, the Daily Sentinel reported it was their sixth robbery since February, and beside the lines of text there were their pictures. Jack’s was obviously a mugshot, hair messed and right eye swollen, scowling at the camera like he wanted to break it. Jill, whose name they didn’t know was Lai, looked like she’d been clipped out of the society pages, nothing but big eyes and cloche hat, the rest obscured by the white fur she wore.
“Ooh, I’m cute,” Lai cooed.
“I remember that one,” Jack said suddenly. “Bullshit score, it was like forty dollars and a bunch of dirt farm deeds.”
“It was the deed for my parents’ store, and I want it back,” I snarled, and I might have lunged for Jack just for looking so skeptical when Lai clapped her hands in realization.
“Oh, I remember,” she exclaimed. “27 Allison Road, it’s a little place, right? Green awning, oil paper over the glass in the door.”
Someone had pitched a rock through the glass the week before the bank came. My hopes lifted.
“Yeah, that! Give it to me.”
That was me and Jack at once, giving each other suspicious looks before Lai spoke again.
“We’ve left money salted away all over the prairie. It’s going to take a while before we work our way back to that cache, and there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads.”
It was the first time I’d heard the term, and something about it made me shiver. I shook it off angrily as she continued.
“So come with us. Make yourself helpful. Run some errands, entertain me when Jack is having a bad day. That’s not such a bad deal, is it? You can be agreeable for just a tiny little while, can’t you?”
She poked my cheek with a playful finger, and I was so startled by the touch, I let her. No one in Meade, including my own parents, would have called me in the least agreeable. I almost argued with her, demanding my parents’ property again, but Jack groaned.
“Oh, fuck all of this. You’re not serious. We can’t bring along some damn hick girl when we’re working.”
“I think it’s a fantastic time to bring along some damn hick girl. I think it’s the best time. Anyway, I want her.”
That was it, that was the line that hit Jack like a sledgehammer between the eyes, always did, and he snarled, turning on his heel to get back in the car. Lai hopped down off the hood, and came to cup my cheek in her hand. I jerked away, but slower than I would have even a few hours ago. She was good at taming wild animals.
“Come on. A few weeks, a month at most, and you’ll have what you want, and so will I.” Then, more softly, “Come run away with us, baby.”
I could have grabbed her, hit her, beat her up until she gave me what I wanted. Instead, I climbed in behind Jack, meeting his eyes briefly in the rearview mirror.
“So what now?” I asked, just to see what he would say, but it was Lai who answered.
“Now we’re going to get you some clothes. I’m not robbing banks with any little bag of rags.”
Lai took me shopping in Chicago, dragging me by my arm through the biggest Chinatown I had ever seen. I was dazzled and half afraid of the faces that looked so much like mine and at once were so alien to me. I’d grown up in Meade, a species of three with my mother and my father, and as the one who spoke the best English, I got to write the rules on what that meant. Here, I could see that there were rules I was expected to follow because of how I looked rather than how I didn’t.
Sharp-eyed Lai probably guessed how I felt, but she also didn’t care, pulling me into one shop after another, shouting cheerfully for the clerk, shoving me in front as if I were a leg of lamb to be dressed. It took me two or three shops to realize that we weren’t speaking English for the sake of my baby Cantonese. It was for her, because whatever she spoke, it wasn’t what the people in Chinatown did.
“Oh, whatever, we’re in America, we should speak American now, anyway,” she said dismissively, handing me a silk shift through the curtain at the back of the shop. “Here, brassiere, garters, and then this on over before you try the dresses.”
She dressed me from the skin out, shoes and underthings before I could even touch the dresses in blue ditty, pink dotted Swiss, a half dozen different florals and calicos. It was shocking at first, exhilarating after that, and then just exhausting by the time I limped back to the hotel room in my new shoes with my arms full of parcels.
“Are you going to make me turn tricks? Was that the kind of work you had in mind?” I asked, falling face-first onto the chaise. I was so tired, I might not have cared.
Jack prodded me in my side and stuck a mug of hot, harsh coffee in my hand.
“Nah, we’d have to gin you up in a cheongsam and give you an opium pipe if we wanted to make any real cash. We’re dressing you for a bank robbery.”
Bank robbers dressed up like bank presidents when they went to work. For guys like Dillinger and Floyd, before their faces got so famous, it gave them a spare few minutes while the onlookers had to figure out if this was someone they needed to be nice to, and sometimes it got them all the way to the vault before the cops were called in.
Of course Jack and Lai didn’t have anything like that. There was no reason for them to be in a white bank. It wasn’t like they were allowed to open accounts, and even if they were doing deliveries, they’d be expected to wait outside for someone to meet them. Instead they went in shouting and shooting, Jack holding people off with guns, Lai grabbing what she could from the tellers and sometimes the rear office.
No one was ever going to mistake them for anything but exactly what they were, so why the pretty dresses and the sharp-cut suits?
“Because fuck ’em, that’s why,” said Jack, pulling up to the Holmsford Savings and Trust in Oklahoma.
“Because we’re prettier than they are, and we want them to see that when we take their money,” said Lai, reaching back to blot some lipstick from the corner of my mouth. “Now hop in front.”
I got behind the wheel as Jack and Lai entered the bank. Jack had been teaching me all week along the country roads bridging Illinois and Missouri. He was, surprisingly enough, a good teacher, patient when I flooded the engine or made it kick. I was eager to put my skills to good use, and the car purred underneath my hand like a big happy cat as I waited for them to come back out.
Time took on a slow, syrupy quality, as if the sun beating down had turned to honey. I was almost painfully aware of everything on the street, the two spotted dogs sleeping in the dirt in front of the general store, the old woman on a gray mare coming up the street. The door to the Holmsford Savings and Trust stood out like it was edged in black ink, and I counted my breaths, one in and two out, waiting for life to restart.
They exploded out the door like shells from a cannon, Lai laughing, Jack swearing, and they leaped into the car . . . which sat absolutely still in its spot, still on. Lai laughed harder, Jack kicked the seat behind me.
“Start the damn car!” he roared as I slapped the parking brake, turned the key, pumped the spark lever like I thought it’d spit beer. If I thought time had slowed to a stop before, it made up for it now, speeding up until it seemed like a beating from the cops, jail, and a long stint the federal pen was practically on top of me.
I was shouting, Jack had grabbed me by the shoulders to try to drag me into the back seat and take my place at the same time, and finally, just as the police car appeared at the head of the street, Lai stifled her giggles enough to point:
“Gear shift! Gear shift!”
Realizing, I yanked it out of neutral, and the car roared forward into the street with the cops hot on our heels. I jerked the wheel to get around the old lady on the horse, spun it just as fast the other way to avoid a parked car, and then we roared out of town, making for Salt Fork River and the state line.
The gunfire started up, but this time, Jack was able to fire back with the rifle stashed under the seat. If I’d known it was there when I first hitched a ride, things might have come out very differently, but now I was just grateful for Jack returning fire with the modified Winchester, booming thunder to get the cops off our tail.
“Right,” Lai said suddenly, and there was a dirt road that I hadn’t expected, so close that I barely made the turning. The shooting kept up, and I drove on, white-knuckled, for what felt like forever until Lai told me right again.
It wasn’t my job to ask questions, it was my job to drive, and I did as the shots chasing us spaced out, one every two seconds, one every five. I would have asked what cops shot like that, but the answer presented itself too easily—it wasn’t the cops chasing us anymore.
Jack swore almost meditatively as he returned fire, but except for a brief glance forward and a reminder to stay on top of the spark lever, he let me drive, and beside me on the bench seat, Lai slid over close, draping her arm over my shoulders. We hadn’t practiced the fox roads because we couldn’t. You needed to be running to find them, and we hadn’t been before.
It felt like forever, the only sounds the periodic shots from a pursuer I couldn’t see in the window, Jack’s swearing, Lai’s murmured left or right. Something buzzed in my chest like the drone of a great hornet, and I let it sink into my bones.
“All right, darling. Right one more time.”
I was so sunk down in my head that I did it without looking, and my heart slammed sideways against my ribs as I realized that the only thing to our right was a deep ravine, the sides sheer stone and grown over with pine saplings that wouldn’t stop us for more than a second on our long drop down.
I yelled, and I would have tried to spin the wheel to save us from going over if Lai hadn’t put her hand over mine, her fingers clamping down with iron strength and no visible effort as she kept me pointed straight down the slope.
Horrified, I felt the car drop out from under us, the pine branches whipping at the windshield, the front wheels spinning on nothing as they reared over the edge—
—and then with a hard bump, we had all four wheels on the asphalt again, rolling along under a perfect October moon. I took a deep, scouring breath of cold air, tears on my cheeks, and I looked over at Lai, whose hand still rested on mine.
She was looking forward to the road, and I saw her in profile, her hat tilted back on her head to reveal the nearly flat plane of her face, the high round forehead that reminded me so much of a perfect eggshell, the way her red mouth was slightly parted as if she was starving for the moonlight and meant to eat it up. The sight of her punched the breath out of my chest, and then she tapped her fingers on my knuckles, settling back on her side of the seat.
“Not bad at all for your first time,” she said with satisfaction. “You’re good at running.”
Jack stashed the Winchester under the seat and leaned forward. I thought he was going to smack me for the gear shift, but instead he slapped my shoulder with a broad grin.
“Nice work. First time Lai steered us into a gully, I couldn’t do it, and it half tore out our engine.”
Rules again, but these rules had enough tooth to tear out the engine on a Model A, and they had nothing to do with how I looked or how I didn’t.
I smiled in the darkness, driving deeper into October and coming out somewhere close to Bowling Green.
The papers figured out pretty quickly that we were now three instead of two, and they decided I was Chinese Jack’s little sister rescued from a disorderly house in San Diego and brought east.
“Why am I your little sister?” I asked, skimming the headlines and sitting next to Lai on the running board as Jack made eggs and bacon over an open fire.
“Probably because otherwise they’d have to start thinking about you two taking turns with me,” Jack replied absently, and Lai snorted.
“Like anyone would have you two!” she exclaimed, standing up and stalking into the woods.
The roads had dumped us out near Gatlinburg in Tennessee that time. Jack liked the mountains, said they reminded him of the stories his dad told about Dinghu Mountain near Zhaoqing, but something about them made Lai uneasy and mean.
I looked after her, a little brokenhearted, and Jack shook his head.
“She gets like that sometimes. Leave her alone, and she’ll come back.”
“She’s not gonna leave us out here to get shot and eaten by coyotes?” I asked, only half joking.
He was right. After her fits of temper, never all that common, Lai would come back to run between us, petting us, kissing us, telling us she was sorry, sorry, sorry, could we ever forgive her, she would make it up to us the minute we got back to a proper city with proper clothes and proper room service.
Jack was used to it, taking her kisses where he could get them, philosophical when he couldn’t, but I soaked up her repentance like a sponge, hanging on to her and demanding that she buy me food and dresses and pretty gold jewelry to say sorry. She liked spoiling me, and I liked being spoiled, but even then I could feel the cracks underneath it all, a creaking like lake ice that would hold your weight right up until it wouldn’t.
It helped that the rest was fun, nothing but fun, after I remembered that the gear shift needed to be out of neutral for the car to run. Jack and I split driving duties getting to the jobs, but I was always the getaway driver, perched in the front seat, waiting for them to come out, and when they did it was like fireworks going off. We shot down the road, faster than anything until the day came that we wouldn’t be, but that day was a thousand years away as we careened down one country road or another, shooting it out with the cops until Lai told me left or right.
I learned to trust Lai’s words even when they took us off a cliff, and the reward for that was driving under the silver light of an October moon, knowing that nothing in the world could touch us. Once, while Jack snored in the back seat, I asked her what they were. Why did they let us on, why did they care whether we lived or died?
“Oh, they don’t care, even a little bit,” she replied, her head leaned against my shoulder. “They probably wouldn’t mind if we got out and offered up our bloods and our skulls to their mother the moon right now.”
I shivered at the image, three mutilated bodies leaking black blood onto the moon-silvered roads, and she kissed my cheek comfortingly.
“It’s fine, it’s fine, em yêu. They let us ride because I know how to ask and you know how to drive. We know the rules, and they’ll get their meal somewhere else.”
I thought I understood at least some part of it. I had been hungry all my life before I joined up with Jack and Lai, both the hungers for food and money that were easy to understand, and the other ones that weren’t.
A few days out of Gatlinburg, we found one of the caches that Lai mentioned. From absolute darkness, we eased onto a stretch of road somewhere in southern Illinois, the twilight just beginning to soften the edges of the high summer heat.
“Oh, hey, left up ahead,” said Jack from the back seat, and this time he was the one who guided me through the half-grown corn to the tiny town of Slip. We stopped long enough to get supplies, paying the staff extravagantly to forget all about us, and we turned off the main road, and then we turned off the dirt track, driving until we got to a falling-down house just before full dark.
It had once been something special, full timber and stone in an area short on both, but now one side slumped over as if it was exhausted, and there was a hole punched from the roof clear through to the loft. Still there was a healthy supply of good firewood tucked under a tarp, and in short order, Jack got the woodstove going while Lai went after the floorboards with a pry bar and a wide grin.
“Come here. Come here and look at this.”
It was more money than I had seen in my life, stacks of bills bound together with ribbons, with string, in one case with the inner tube from a bike tire. She lifted the bundles of cash out one after the other to build a little wall between us, and then she reached deeper into the hole to pull out two dusty bottles.
“The fox roads want us to have a party,” she sang, and we did.
It was the kind of night that you only have a handful of times, but your mind insists that of course there were more. Of course there were more nights where you drank ridiculously good wine with people you loved. Of course someone fed you perfectly fried sausage under a real summer moon more than five times. Of course when you laughed, they kissed you, passing you back and forth between them like a present they wanted to share. It hurts too much to think of only having a night like that one just a few times in your lifetime, so you take the memory and stretch it out and make it last.
I woke up wearing Jack’s clothes, and when Jack reached for them, I shrank away without thinking, unwilling to give up the trousers or the shirt or the braces or the tie. I backed up right into Lai’s arms, which wrapped me up snug and sound.
“Well, that means I get to take you shopping again,” she said with enormous satisfaction.
I tried to explain it to them, but they didn’t need it, and after a few days in my smart new clothes and with my hair cut properly, I didn’t need the explanation either, not with them and not to myself.
The thing that people who live on the coasts don’t quite understand about the plains states is that they go on forever. Winter lasts forever, the prairies last forever, and between Chicago and St. Louis there’s a countless number of small towns on a single stretch of road, sitting like pyrite beads stitched on twisting black ribbon.
There were plenty of small towns with banks for us to hit, and it was a good thing, because we never grabbed more than two thousand dollars at any single one. Sometimes we were lucky to walk away with a couple hundred, enough to keep gas in the car, bullets in the guns, and food in our bellies.
Still, it was more money than I had ever seen. I thought we were rich, though Jack begged to differ. He was the one who priced out our expenses, knew to the penny how far two hundred dollars wouldn’t take us. He knew who would take a bribe to look the other way and who wanted enough cash we were better off just dodging them. Once in a while, he talked wistfully about the big scores in places like Chicago and St. Louis and Little Rock. Lai said we were welcome to try, but we would do them without her because it was too much, too much heat, too much press, too many trains cutting our access to the real getaway roads, never mind the fox roads.
Still, it added up, and whenever we ended up in a town big enough for us to be anonymous, we blew in with money to burn. In Chicago again, Jack went to find a boxing club that would stand him a few rounds, mostly ones on the South Side, and Lai took me by the arm and said that I needed a new suit.
There was a tailor she liked in Chinatown, where she had bought me my first suit the month before, but when we crossed over to the little store next to the dim sum place, we found it locked up tight. A small sign in the window said that the two brothers who operated it had gone home to Fuzhou for the month, and I felt a little ill, thinking of how long it had been since I had seen my parents, how little I had thought about it until this moment. Maybe she knew what I was thinking, maybe she only thought I was disappointed, but Lai squeezed my arm.
“Oh, we’ll catch them when next we’re in Chicago. In the meantime, let’s get you something small to tide you over, all right?”
We’d never be in Chicago together again, but I didn’t know that. Instead, I followed her back onto the streetcar, taking my place next to the aisle to keep her from bumps and gropes. There were plenty of other tailors in Chinatown, even ones who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at what a queer pair we were, but for some reason, she took us all the way to State Street, wide and noisy with what felt like the whole world on the thoroughfare.
It was a hot summer Saturday, and people had turned out in their best. Everyone was there to spend money or make it, and the roving vendors, selling everything from pickles to shirts to shoes that would let you dance all night, moved through the crowds like a flock of darting birds to avoid the city police.
Lai grabbed a pair of red shoes from a woman packing up, slipping a dollar into her pocket as she hurried away. The shoes were leather with a smart ankle strap fastened a brass button, and she leaned on me with one hand while using the other to put them on. Her old shoes, black patent leather and the same ones she’d been wearing when I met her, she dropped carelessly on the street before taking a few fast dance steps.
“Oh, these are nice,” she exclaimed. “I could dance back to the moon with these.”
To my surprise, she led me straight to the brass and frosted-glass doors of Beecham’s Department Store, one of the biggest in the city, certainly one of the nicest. The wide display windows featured dresses and suits spelled up to dance with each other behind the glass, diamond necklaces and gold watches wrapped around invisible necks and wrists, and that was nothing compared to the Christmas displays, which unbottled rare vintages of Warsaw winters to set their spectacles.
The doorman gave us a significant look, but Lai moved so fast and with such surety that he would actually have to bar the door against her to keep us out. It wasn’t worth his time to do so—he couldn’t even do it legally like they could in other states—but still the only faces among the customers and behind the counters were white.
“Lai, let’s just go, they’re not going to sell us anything here.”
“What a good thing it is we’re not here to buy anything.”
Before I could stop her, she plucked a violet box from the display on an oak table, small enough to hide entirely under her hand. In a move identical to the one pushing money into the vendor’s pocket, she slid it into the watch pocket of my vest before turning on her toe and whirling away.
She didn’t run. I know that for sure, because when Lai ran, really ran, there was nothing in the world that could keep up with her. Instead she simply moved away from me so quickly that I didn’t know I was being left for a moment, only the red heels of her new shoes catching my eye as she whisked around a rack of wool jackets. I stared after her for a wild moment as someone shouted “Hey, stop!” and then I went after her, following her through the men’s department into jewelry.
Running, the protective civility we had had evaporated, and suddenly and irreversibly, we were visible, and we were targets. The cry went up, “Stop thief!” and I heard footsteps pounding behind me. Most of the shoppers lurched away from me, a few who were too slow clipped my shoulders as I went by, and one or two, assholes, tried to grab me. If they tried to grab Lai, I never saw it, and desperately, I focused on her red heels, running hard to catch up with her, because it was Lai, she couldn’t leave me, wouldn’t leave me, and all I had to do was catch her, catch up with her.
I ran so hard I was surprised I didn’t chip the marble floors, and when Lai splashed gleefully through the Lady Liberty fountain, I went right in after her. She stooped in the water for a brief moment, coming up with a handful of pennies that turned into quarters as she flung them into the crowd. The sudden mad scramble for silver stalled me up, nearly made me trip over a girl grabbing for money on her knees, but I won myself free just in time for Lai to dart into the café area.
I thought I had her cornered briefly—the tables were set close, and every table was packed, but she surprised me and that poor couple trying to eat their charlotte cake. One foot on the man’s knee, one just shy of the strawberry topping, and she was up and over, leaving me to blunder half into the lap of the poor woman who just wanted her dessert. I couldn’t go over the table like she could, so instead I slammed my hip hard against the corner, spun it, spun myself, and barely managed to gain my feet to chase after her.
I couldn’t see anything but her flashing red heels, I couldn’t hear anything but the roar of my blood in my ears, I couldn’t think anything but Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.
The security guard wasn’t even chasing me. I rounded the corner, certain that I was closing the gap between us, and I found the guard instead. His hand came up in surprise, and more by instinct than anything else, he grabbed me by the scruff of my jacket as I started to turn. I looked around desperately, but no red, no Lai, and I sagged, shocked and empty in his grasp.
It was only when he tried to pull me away, probably toward some back room to wait for the cops or something worse, that a more sensible fear took over. I went limp for a split second, making him pause, and at the same time, I tore out the buttons of my jacket, letting me slip it entirely as I darted away.
By some miracle, I was by the doors, and I blew through them, leaving a department store full of angry shouts and chaos behind me. When I got onto the street, I didn’t stop running, even though I could hear Jack cautioning me that running’s the way you get chased. Maybe he would like to take his chances with his fists, but I wouldn’t, and I ran.
Chicago doesn’t go on forever, quite, but it was drawn in sharp lines, and with a few stumbling steps, you went from luxury to poverty, from houses to railroad tracks.
I ran, and for some reason I couldn’t stop running, and the farther I went, the faster I went as well. I ran through smoking yards where garbage was burned to sidewalks slick with blood where you prayed it was only cows and sheep getting slaughtered behind the high fences, and I cut behind the yard where a gardener trimmed the rosebushes only to emerge into one hosting a dogfight.
I moved faster, the transitions got harder and stranger. It felt a little like running through a rain of knives, but it was good, so good to know that no one in the world was going to catch me.
A room where a pair of Chinese sisters set each other’s hair, getting ready for a night on the town.
Rats trotting along the river, so many and packed so solid that they moved like one animal, one mind.
A vaulted space full of people and the roar of arriving trains, the air thick with the promise of getting away.
A bunk on a rocking ship, a young sailor staring dreamily at something in a muscle magazine. He looked up, shouting even as he jammed the magazine under his pillow, and the sense of recognition was so intense that I missed a step. I swore, crashing headfirst over a steel footlocker, throwing my hands up because I was going to hit the floor, and it was going to hurt.
Instead of hitting the wooden planks, I hit a brick wall, which was hardly less painful. The scrape of the raw brick took some skin off my upper lip and my cheek, and when it didn’t yield, I ended up on the cement, curling up into myself as bolts of pain shot through my body, bright as lightning and gradually growing dimmer.
I focused on breathing, because it felt as if that was no longer guaranteed, and just when I thought it might be sort of fun to stand up again, a door opened farther down the alleyway, spilling out boisterous shouts. Suddenly some familiar swearing rose up out of the cheerful calls and Jack was there, crouching down in front of me and demanding to know what the hell had happened.
I tried to tell him she left me, but nothing came out but a sob, and, growling, he got an arm around me and helped me up.
I had ended up close to Chinatown, close enough, anyway, that he got me to a restaurant nearby. We settled in the booth at the very back, and they brought us garlic chicken on top of fat white noodles, topped with stinging green onion. I realized I was starving, and I wolfed down my portion eagerly, but Jack only picked at his, watching the door, absently rubbing his ribs where they had taped him up after.
I finished the dumplings he’d meant to for us to share, and I had started on his dish when Lai came in, smiling and calling to the girl behind the counter as if they were cousins. I almost started crying again, but she came to sit beside me, snuggling me under her arm with such a conspiratorial smile that I didn’t care how hurt I was.
“You’re so good, anh yêu, you’re so, so good.”
She leaned in to give me a little kiss on the cheek and to take back the little box she’d stuck in my pocket before straightening up to call for fish ball soup and more dumplings.
Beyond her, Jack gave us both a long, long look, his mouth curved down like the ends of a drawn bow.
Something changed after that, which is too easy to say. Things are always changing, whether you see it or not, and I didn’t.
Jack got quieter, Lai got meaner, and every day I meant to ask them about the cache where they’d hidden the deed to 27 Allison Road, but every day I didn’t. If I asked, they’d give it to me, and in my suit, drinking whiskey as I drove down the moonlit fox roads with two people who knew my right name, I never wanted anything less than to go home.
So we kept on through August, from Cherryvale to Green Bay to Waterloo to Carbondale, east to Zanesville, and west to Storm Lake, and if I drove fast enough, nothing would change.
The day we drove into Wilder, Illinois, the sky was low, swagged with clouds, and a wind stirred uneasily along the ground, blowing scraps of paper along the street and tugging at the hem of Lai’s skirt like a kid begging for candy.
I slid into the front seat, my hat pulled down low over my eyes, and I watched them go in, Lai first because no one could take their eyes off of her, and Jack following, gun in hand. Driving getaway meant that I had to keep my eye on the street for anything that wanted to block us in or get in our way, but for just a second, I looked after them with a strange pain in my heart, something that ached right under my breastbone and kept me from drawing a full breath.
Then I went back to looking out for trouble, like I was meant to do, and they burst back out onto the street like fireworks, a rain of bullets following them. In mid-stride, Jack spun almost completely around, blood darkening his shoulder, the force of the bullet almost putting him on the ground. He kept his feet, and I shoved the car door open for him, let him grab on to it and pull himself in heavily.
Lai never got in at all, and I turned to see her at the driver’s window, hopping up on the running board to lean in and kiss me, digging her nails into my chest hard before pushing herself out and running back toward the bank.
I screamed her name, or I thought I did, and then she met the two armed guards at the front. They saw her coming like a storm of red, right up in their faces before they could remember that she was dangerous. That was all the time she needed, and two fast swipes with her hooked fingers left them bleeding from their faces as she turned and ran down the street.
Jack started to lurch back out the car to go after her, and before I could think, I gunned the engine, wheeling out of the spot as if it had caught fire. He got the door closed with his good arm, swearing the air blue, and we swung down the road after Lai.
I have one crystal-clear picture of her running, her red shoes gone, her hat flown off her head, her hair blowing around her face. Then it’s a blur as I realized she was pacing the car and then outrunning it entirely, her body lengthening, her face tugging out like a muzzle, her red dress sweeping to hair and her fingers blackening as she pulled the yards and miles underneath her.
Lai outpaced the car, and then with the echo of a laugh in my head, she was gone, and the gunfire started.
For a second, the Ford actually slowed because I didn’t know what to do next, not with Jack leaking blood onto the bench seat and unable to return fire, not without Lai laughing in my ear.
Then I realized, of course I did.
The Ford leaped forward like a fox itself, and I hit the highway doing at least sixty an hour and gaining. There had been talk recently, better guns for the cops, better cars, cooperation between feds that could hang you in Tennessee for a bank you hit in Wisconsin, but that was all slow, too slow to ever catch us. A laugh bubbled up in my throat as I yanked the wheel hard left into what looked like a live oak tree and found a little cow-path road that was never there. Right, and left, and right again, and I could feel the wheel tugging against my grasp. The Ford knew that it wasn’t Lai guiding it but me, and while I was fine on the long stretches of the freeways between St. Louis and Chicago, the fox roads were something else.
Up in Wisconsin, north of Black River Falls and Rhinelander, the lumberjacks drag their logs from the pineries to the river to float them downstate. The drag marks become these broad ruts just barely wide enough to drive on, and bank robbers and bootleggers call them the cat roads. It’s more than just lumber that the loggers drag away, when the land belongs to the Ojibwe and Menominee, and the crooks who run the cat roads meet some fearsome trouble if they step one foot wrong and sometimes if they don’t.
The fox roads were something else, I realized, as the light drained away and the moon rose in the sky. You only hit the fox roads if you’re running from something, and I remembered my mad dash in Chicago, how fear had sent me somewhere else, saved me. Was saving us now.
Left. Another left.
Jack had stripped his jacket off and half his shirt as well. They were bloody rags, and the car smelled of whiskey as he applied it inside and out, as the old saying went.
“How are you?” I asked, and he nodded tersely.
“I’ll live. How long has Lai been teaching you?”
I started to tell him about Beecham’s, but then I thought about how she had looked at me that morning in Hooper, just for an instant, how she had held a knife to my throat and told me she thought I was afraid and that that was all right.
“Probably since the first day I met you.”
We drove in silence for a while. Jack fell asleep, snoring heavily enough I never had to worry if he had died leaking blood onto the leather seat. The fox road rolled out in front of me like a ribbon—all I had to do was grab it and pull it underneath me to get to where I was going, wherever that was.
Before I could think too hard about what I was doing, I eased the car over to the side of the road. I knew right away that this was something I wasn’t supposed to do, but if Lai wanted to tell me off, she could damn well come back to do it.
I figured it out, mostly, when I’d seen her muzzle, her neat black feet, the streak of russet red that was all that was left of her red dress. It’s a hard thing to stay in a form that’s not your own, even when you love the people who know you in it. It feels like flying when you can be what you really are, even if you love pretty dresses and golden jewelry. I still had some of mine stashed somewhere in Milwaukee, even if I probably didn’t want to wear them anymore.
I sat on the running board, facing the cornfield. The moon cast everything in shades of silver with shadows so dark anything could be hidden within them. I knew that there were things in those shadows that wouldn’t mind taking a bite out of me or Jack, were probably thinking about it right now, but I could have one goddamn minute.
“Just because you went doesn’t mean you can’t come back,” I said.
I listened for a response. Maybe I heard a high shrill laugh from the dark woods beyond the fields.
I breathed out to see the plumes of steam, and I reached into my jacket for a cigarette. Pulling out the pack I’d picked up in Waukegan (Flessner Bank, twelve hundred dollars flat), my fingers brushed against something hard and square. It was of course the little box she’d swiped in Chicago, and, the unlit cigarette dangling from my lip, I opened it.
It was a pair of cuff links, round and set in copper. I couldn’t see the color in the dark, but I thought that when we emerged into summer again, they would flash a foxy amber. As well, there was a sheet of paper, folded so many times it was a square lump as hard as the box. When I pulled it open, I could read the word printed across the top clearly in the moonlight: DEED. Underneath it in smaller print, 27 Allison Road.
My parents had built that store out of nothing, or rather, they had built it out of ten years washing clothes at the Grandee Hotel in Reno, another eight years on the farms around Meade. They had bought the store with the two rooms in the back to sleep in because they were ready to build a better life for me, and the fact that it was a life I hated didn’t matter at all.
I stroked the deed with my fingertips, and the memories of the polished counter, the acrylic cash register buttons under my fingertips, and the bare plank floors rose up unbidden and unwelcome. My mother kept an enormous glass jar of pickles on the counter that no one ever wanted, even if they were free. My parents were right when they thought that Meade would deal with them as the only store in town. They were wrong when they thought that Meade would get used to them.
When the bank had taken the store, it had left a gap like a lost tooth on Allison Road, a bare dusty lot where it had been. My mother screamed after them, cursing in a language she refused to teach me, and my father just sat in the dirt, staring stoically back at the people who had come to stare at him. I sat next to my father in the same dust-gray dress that I had been wearing when I met Jack and Lai, and under the fear and the grief and the stomach-turning fury, I was ferociously, ungratefully, stupidly happy to see it go. Now here it was again, lock, stock, and every barrel, and they could put it down where it had been or take it elsewhere, find another town, other people. They could take this deed, unfold it and set it down on waiting earth, and let it roll out the same barrels and dry goods and pickles for people who might like them better.
I could go back with it, I realized, pack myself up with the bolts of fabric and the sacks of flour. They’d take me back, and never speak of it. It’d be like I never left.
I put the deed away again, sticking it back in the box and sliding the box back into my vest. In a surprisingly short amount of time, I had gotten used to myself, and I realized I was in no hurry to give it up. Maybe I would someday, go back and take my place beside the pickles, but I didn’t think so. I’d deliver the deed back to them, say sorry, and then it would be back on the road for me and Jack. Maybe we’d keep on as we were, or maybe we’d try our luck at something else. We’d met bootleggers running whiskey between Chicago and Montreal. The fox roads probably ran to Canada. With the cash we’d stolen, we could buy into some of the clubs out west, the ones that featured only Chinese performers. Hell, maybe we’d get real jobs.
I climbed back into the car, the still-sleeping Jack on my right, the hunter’s moon on my left.
I started to drive.
“On the Fox Roads” copyright © 2023 by Nghi Vo
Art copyright © 2023 by Alyssa Winans