When Will’s mother died, it took them a month to find his father.
Ty Stewart was a tall, broad-shouldered fellow with the same riotous coffee-colored curls as Will; he was in the wine business, he said, Married, but his wife lived in France. He looked at his son a bit warily, but he tried. He took Will out to dinner at a diner his mother worked in, sixteen years ago; Ty ordered cheeseburgers, strawberry soda, and hot apple pie. He watched every bite that went into Will’s mouth, looked relieved when he finished.
“Tell me about her, please, Ty?”
Ty didn’t remember her, not really. Will could tell, by the way he skimmed over details and stuck to the basics.
“She was beautiful,” he said. “Had a great laugh. Really smart. We had a good time together, Will.”
Theirs had been a causal relationship; in a sense Will appreciated him not making it sound like more. Ty was better when he moved on to other things, like enrolling Will in school, getting him a car.
“It’ll be all right here, Will.”
Will nodded, but a rush of loneliness stole the thank you from his lips.
It was summer, so Will asked for a job in the vineyards. Ty was surprised but pleased. He took him there, introduced him to a girl who’d been picking, he said, for three summers. Will was glad to get out of the house, out of the button-ups and butter-soft leather loafers Ty had bought him from stores whose names he didn’t recognize.
“This is Ruby. She’ll show you the ropes, son.”
It was the first time Ty called him, ‘son.’ The word settled on Will’s shoulders like sunlight, and he smiled, really smiled at Ty for the first time since he moved in.
Ruby was pretty, he thought on that first day. She was small with sun-bleached hair and bright blue eyes. She wore overalls over a torn sweatshirt. Her cherry-colored polish was chipped.
She was in a band, she told him as they worked together side-by side in warm California air that smelt of sunshine and rotting grapes. Indie, did he know what that was? She showed him how to pick the grapes without damaging them, to use the picking tools, to separate the ones that would be suitable for eating.
They ate lunch together most days, stretched out on sun-warmed rocks, brushing the bees off their fruit and sandwiches. They watched the people that came on buses for wine tastings, made up stories about them. Ruby cut cheese so sharp that he could smell it through the wax wrapper. They had it with stolen wine, and they laughed.
Will told her about his mother one day after work when they shared a bottle of the cheaper red and were a little tipsy. Her eyes filled with tears.
She squeezed his hand and he was grateful.
Will traveled to Pasadena every week on the bus, after school, Wednesdays. The driver knew him by name. He had a car now, all sleek lines and leather, but he preferred the bellow, the stench, the rhythmic lurching that he knew would lull him to sleep on the way back. It was tradition he was not yet ready to give up, a break from his father’s house, with its antique furniture, cloth napkins, elegance that he wasn’t born into, constant reminders to be grateful. Ty never said anything about the trips, but he always checked on Will afterwards, his face a little anxious.
Ruby met him at the station one Wednesday. The sun had already set; the air was heavy and cool with mist. Even the birds had elected to stay inside. Her eyes were bright under a cap of messy sun-streaked hair, and she was clutching a bouquet of lilies in small grubby hands.
“For your mother,” she whispered, pressing them into his; and then she was gone, the hem of her long skirt fluttering in the wind.
Will’s heart turned over then, threatened to break through bone and skin. At that moment, he knew one thing.
He would love her for the rest of his life.
Will followed Ruby and her band on their first tour that first sticky-hot summer after graduation, driving with them round the West Coast in a peeling white Vanogen with vinyl seats so cracked that he could fit his entire hand inside the worst of them.
The band eyed him like he was crazy at first; they’d never seen an eighteen-year-old male groupie who wore Ralph Lauren polos, checked stock prices on his phone and left his Sperrys out on the dash to dry after rainstorms.
He made himself indispensable, though, in his own quiet way; he connected wires, talked to managers, learned to set up and dismantle equipment almost as quickly as they. He passed out water and Excedrin after shows, and held heads up in stinky, fly-infested public toilets when someone had too much to drink. He cooked Chef Boyardee in the can over a not-quite-legal open fire, and at shows he was always in front, mouth stretched into a smile, eyes fixed on her, and when he lifted his fingers to his mouth and whistled, she told him she never felt more like a star.
“Why the hell is he here?” Her bandmates were blunt.
“He needs me,” she said.
The band left in May, were famous by June. She started dating an actor in July, was dumped in November.
She did not cry prettily, and somehow that touched him more.
Her eyes became pink-rimmed quickly, nearly swollen shut; her face reddened and wilted, like an old cabbage. She was in pain, but she showed it to him and clung to him, tightly.
The last night of the tour, she kissed him. Her lips were as warm and soft as he imagined.
There was a record deal, and Ruby’s life became the band. Will cherished each moment with Ruby now, as if they were dealing with a terminal illness. There were late nights in studio, long sessions with a tall bassist that smoked between sets, watched them with a lazy smile on his face.
Ty warned him about it; hell, everyone had, whether verbally or through those little fleeting looks that were half-pitying, half-mocking. They thought he was whipped; they had good reason to. His girlfriend’s pale blue eyes glimmered with the kind of pain that only comes from longing for something you don’t have.
He should let her go, he thought at least once a day. But then her soft lips grazed his cheek or her small hands tucked in the crook of his arm or she smiled at him with a gentleness that made his heart turn over–
It’ll happen eventually, he told himself. No need to rush it. It was already evident even in their kisses, the gentle rasp of skin on skin, a little desperate, a little sad. She disappeared for longer times between sets; returned with liquor on her breath, a new glassiness in her eyes.
When she told him she was pregnant, he kissed her and tried to hold her, tell her it would be all right. If the kid wasn’t his—
No. God wouldn’t be that cruel.
Eight months later Ty arrived at the hospital and found Will sitting on Ruby’s bed, cradling their baby in his large hands. She was wrapped tightly in bunting and her hair was pale fuzz; Ty barely registered this before he spoke.
“You leave to go on tour with this girl, and then call me to tell me she had a baby? Where the fuck is she?”
Will looked up, and his blue eyes were tired, his skin colorless. “The nurse,” he said, and his voice was calmer than it had ever been, “is coming to show me how to feed her. I have to buy her a bed, Ty. I don’t know where to.”
Ty sank into a chair. It seemed appropriate.
“It’s Lucy. Ruby said she liked the name,” Will added, pulling a knit cap down low on the infant’s head. His voice was frayed, but steady. She barely stirred, only pursed small rose-colored lips, and nestled into her father’s warmth. She smelt of powder and milk. He wondered if she could hear his heartbeat through the folds of her blanket.
“Will? Has anyone heard from her?”
Will flushed hard, looked away. He couldn’t even begin to try to explain anything, not now. She didn’t tell him when she went into labor, and was gone afterwards. They’d called him to tell him that someone had to take his daughter home, or did they intend her for state care?
“Has anyone heard from her?” Ty asked, a bit more loudly.
Will nodded. The movement did not dislodge the lump in his throat. “London. She got a record deal.”
Ruby was far from gone in his head; Will googled her frequently. The hits increased as the months went on. Amsterdam, Germany, Los Angeles, New Zealand. Her voice was on the radio. She was dating her bassist. She seemed as omniscient as God and just as far away.
He rocked his daughter at night and thought about lilies and wine and summer kisses.
She came back a year later, sobbed into his chest, and he still cared, damn it. She smelt of dried flowers and talcum powder and cheap wine. She was twenty today, she said; did he remember? They would take her away, to where she could get better.
She wanted to see Lucy.
“I didn’t mean to,” she sobbed.
He’d sworn to her he’d always care, but now he felt nothing but exhaustion, wrung like a dishrag that’s been used too many times, fraying at the edges. He was too tired to feel pity, even.
He hated himself for not hating her.