My truck groaned and sputtered up the driveway, smoke coiling from under the hood as if it were attempting to imitate the dragon Smog from The Hobbit. I had been praying to some great deity for the last ten miles that I wouldn't spontaneously combust. Someone must have been listening because I rolled to a stop at the head of the driveway without an explosion.

"Please don't be on fire, please don't be on fire," I prayed as I literally kicked open the perpetually stuck door and made my way cautiously to the hood.

I walked over and lifted. I had apparently opened the floodgates for the smoke spilled out with the force of a river that had just triumphed over a dam. The smell of gasoline mixed with God-knows what was almost unbearable. I coughed and buried what I could of my mouth and my nose into the crook of my arm. Even with the engine turned off, smoke was still billowing out of the engine like a plane crash survivor's fire on a deserted island. I reached to touch the something that looked out of place, but immediately found out why that was a stupid idea.

"Ouch, Son of a—," I swore, waving my hand in the air frantically.

"What did you do to it?" exclaimed a voice from behind me.

"You mean what did it do to me?" I replied, turning to come face to chest with my cousin, Avery. He immediately wrapped me in a giant bear hug, literally lifting my feet a couple inches of the ground

Avery is by far my favorite person in the world. He's a high school senior and his school's left tackle. All muscle, all height, all power, Avery is easily one of their best players, but he's also extremely intelligent. He has an academic scholarship to the University of California. But that's not why I love him. I love him because he's probably the only person on the planet who is just happy to see me for me. Not because I'm a drinking buddy, or because I'm Jack's kid, but because I'm Kyra, his favorite cousin.

"Hey there big guy," I laughed, returning the hug.

"Is the track down?"

"Yep, they're renovating something. I'm here for a couple days."


You see why I like this kid?

"Avery, do you need me to…"

That would be Aunt Jenny. She's not exactly my biggest fan. She doesn't exactly approve of my career as jockey, and she—like most people—look through their nose at me when they realize that I never finished high school. It's her worst fear that Avery will take after me.

"Hello, Kyra."

"Hey, Aunt Jenny! The track's closed down for a few days and I thought I'd swing by here and say hello."

"Well, wasn't that nice? We'd love to have you!"

I said she wasn't too fond of me, but Aunt Jenny is one of those people who would jump in front of an oncoming semi for family, even if she doesn't approve of them.

"Thanks," I grinned.

Avery had half of his body through my truck window, dragging my duffle bag out the passenger seat. Smoke still curled slowly from under the hood, as if it make sure that the engine was not to be ignored. I made a mental note to check it out later.

"Uncle Steven," I called out, opening the door.

Sitting at the table was a tired looking older man. Uncle Steven was my dad's younger brother, though only by a year. In many ways, he was like Atticus from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. He hadn't chosen to go into the horse business with my dad, and picked a safe job as an accountant. But they had been closer than any brothers could be and it hit Uncle Steven pretty hard when my dad died. I think that's the thing that connects us so tightly, the loss of my dad. We don't talk much, but I don't really think we need to.

"Kyra," he greeted in his usually tranquil voice, a voice that reminded me much of my dad's.

"Track's closed down for a couple days, so I though I'd come down to say hello," I relayed, taking a seat across from him at the kitchen table.

"Mmmm," he nodded, taking a sip of what smelled like some sort of herbal tea.

Uncle Steven is a high-strung man. His hair started to pepper before he turned forty-five and you can usually see him tapping some part of his body anxiously, whether it be his foot, his fingers, or whatever he's holding in his hand.

"Hey, Dad," Avery smiled, dropping my bag at my feet and going straight for the refrigerator. Glass clinked together as he searched around for a suitable snack. Uncle Seven nodded at his son in some sort of greeting, and then went back to stirring his tea. There's something about just sitting in a place that looks mundane and lived in while surrounded by people doing mundane things that makes you just relax and think, I'm home.

"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes," Aunt Jenny announced, carefully stepping out of her sneakers and kicking them into the pile against the door.

"You gonna eat with us, Jinx?" Avery asked. A halfway finished peach leaked sticky juices onto his hand, his pants, and the well polished wood floor.

"Nah, kid, I think I'm going to get a few minutes shut eye and then figure out what's wrong with my truck."

Avery nodded, excepting the answer I usually gave. It was routine. I would ride in, get the spare room set up, sleep, and then get whatever I needed finished, finished. Sometimes it was laundry, other times it was getting some help with my taxes, most of the time it was fixing my rotting truck.

"That thing finally broken down?" asked Uncle Steven.

"Nah, the engine's just smoking like a dragon with a head cold," I sighed.

"Ah." He took another deep draft of his tea. "I know a guy who'd be able to help. He's a good friend of mine."

"Nah, I can't afford anything right now. I'm tight as it is with the track closed and all. I think if I just fiddle around with the engine and Google some stuff, it'll be fine."

Uncle Steven didn't argue. His brother was a jockey. He knew the score.

"So if you can get your truck fixed up in time then we can go out and do something, right?" Avery questioned, whipping off his hands with a blue dish towel he had grabbed from the counter.

"If I can get my truck engine to stop smoking we'll go wherever you want to go, but until then, we're stranded."

"We could take Dad's car…"

"Ha, good joke. Like I would ever be trusted in that thing! My dad wasn't even allowed to drive it!"

The only thing that Uncle Steven ever indulged in was his '76 Vette. It was redone the brightest shade of red possible with the inside completely refurbished for comfort and style. It purred like a kitten and—from what he's told us—drove like a dream. When put in comparison with Uncle Steven's car, my truck wouldn't even have the proper rights to call itself a vehicle.

"Well, maybe if—" Avery started to say.

"As long as I'm able to move at least one of my legs you are not to go near that car, you hear me Avery John Moretti?" Uncle Steven growled from behind his paper.

"Yes'ir," nodded Avery.

"Good," gruffed Uncle Steven, flipping the page briskly.

"We'll leave at midnight," he mouthed at me, glancing worriedly at his father.

I chuckled silently and hefted by bag over my shoulder and walked the well-known way to the guest room. I had been staying there since before I could walk the way to the room, so, it's best said that I knew the house pretty well.

"Ah, soft," I moaned to the ceiling as I dropped back first onto the mattress. Maybe it had been Tony's training, maybe it had been the stress of the last few days, or maybe it had been just one of those weeks, but I was done. And I'm not talking just tired. You know when you come home after a week that didn't end, after a day that went all the wrong ways, and only being able to lie down after you ran to the store and dropped things off at the post office? That 'done' feeling. Well, I felt that, except I felt it ten times worse.

A few minutes of sleep turned into a few hours. The next thing I know, the television is blaring at top volume from the living room, and it was eight o'clock in the morning. Sun made a weak attempt at breaking the blind of the window.

"Ugh," I groaned into my pillow. Realizing that I was still wearing my shoes, I kicked them off and trudged upstairs.

"Don't you have school, or something like that," I yawned, looking down at Avery with a mix of wonder and irritation.

The irritation was for obvious reasons, the wonder was for the fact that he was able to sit around in his underwear with a bowel of cereal on the couch. I'm beginning to think men have no shame.

"Nah, it's something about teachers doing something at somewhere and blah, blah, blah," Avery waved off, shoving more cereal in his mouth than could logically fit on the spoon.

"Mmm," I mumbled, taking a seat next to him on the couch.

"You gonna eat?" he asked, thrusting his cereal bowel towards me. Milk and bits of food sprayed from his mouth.

"Not now," I sighed, "and not that."

Days off did not means days off from my diet. I had strict rules, dry toast for breakfast, a small amount of fruit and vegetables for lunch, and half a chicken breast of maybe some pasta for dinner. Nothing more, sometimes less.

"Oh," he muttered dejectedly.

"Nothing personal," I soothed.

"Yeah, I know. I didn't want your disease all over my breakfast anyway."

I smiled. Avery worried, I knew that, but he didn't vocalize anything. He'd been raised by his father. He was well aware that jockeys go to extremes to win.

"Wh' cha' gonna do today?" he asked through a mouthful of cereal.

"Well, first, I'm going to teach you how to swallow before speaking. And then I'm going to figure out what's wrong with my truck. Where you fit into the latter is your choice, of course."

"I'll help," sighed Avery.

"It'll be fun, swear. And then we'll go out and cause mayhem."

He nodded and I grinned. Another reason why I loved this kid was because he's easily pleased. You don't meet too many people like that these days.

"Okay, I think I see the problem," I yelled.

I had been working on my truck for the past few hours, using trial and error to find out what exactly was causing my truck to belch black smog. And in those three hours the only thing I'd really done was contribute fifty more pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and lower my life expectancy about six years.

"Really? Are you sure, last time you just made it worse," replied Avery, shoving his head under the hood with mine.

"I'm pretty sure. Hand me the duck tape, would you?"

Avery ducked out and returned with a roll of shiny silver duck tape, the only thing holding this piece of shit together. I tugged a giant piece off the roll and ripped it free using my teeth. Carefully, I wrapped it around two different parts to hold them together.

"Alright, defying moment," I exclaimed, diving through the open door and turning the keys. The truck grumbled irritably like a bear being poked during hibernation, but there was no smoke.

"Win!" I cheered, turning off the car and jumping out.

"Yes!" Avery yelled, giving me a high five.

"It took three hours and two rolls of duck tape, but we did it," I sighed, whipping the sweat from my forehead and replacing it with grease.

"Hell yeah," Avery said, giving me another high five.

"So, now that we have a vehicle, we can go wherever you wanna go. Let me get cleaned up and we'll blow this joint."

We ended up sitting at a tacky, red, faux leather booth in the back of some neighborhood restaurant. I was nursing a glass of water and Avery was going to town on a giant burger.

"You're going to get sick if you don't slow down," I chided, making a face the amount of food he was in taking. No human being should be able to, but Avery can.

"I'll be fine." was his reply.

"If you puke in my truck I'll hit you so hard, you won't be able to tell me the days of the week."

"Oh, like it would matter if I puked in that piece of crap. Seriously, if I was locked in there with the stomach flu, no one would notice the difference."

I childishly made a face at him and fired a spitball at the sleazy waiter who spent more time hitting on me than he did taking care of his other customers. Avery snickered and I tore off more pieces of the paper napkin to use as ammo.

"So, how's life on the track?" Avery questioned.

"Eh, still horrible," I shrugged, launching another projectile at the waiter who was currently flirting with another girl.

"Same 'ol same 'ol?"

"Not exactly, one of my dad's old apprentices came down."

"Are you serious?"

"Completely, his name is Tony Caliber and he's one tough son of a gun."

"Huh, never knew Jack took on any apprentices."
"Must have been in his early years. From here Tony moved out East to New York to jockey there. He came back to California to retire with Dad, but no one told him Dad was dead."

"Wow, so now what?"

"For now he's just hanging around the racetrack, giving me some pointers."

"Do you trust this guy? He's not just scamming you?"

"I don't see how. He hasn't asked for money or anything. And you know he's a jockey, he just has that…air; I guess you would call it. And yeah, I trust him. He hasn't given me a reason not to. I might sound naïve, but right now I'm desperate."

"What if he is scamming you?"

"Then he'll have hell to pay. But he hasn't asked for money, nor has he asked for anything else. I really think this guy is true to his word, Avery."

"Come on, this is a racetrack. No one is true to their word."

"I am, aren't I? My dad was."

"That's two out of thousands. This sounds dumb, Jinx."

"Listen, for now, he's done nothing but help. I swear: the first sign of trouble and I'm gone, but for now, let's just ride this through, see what happens."

"I don't like this, but, looks like I'm not convincing you otherwise."

"Ata' boy," I jeered, shooting a spitball at him.

I didn't say anything about Tony after that lunch, but I could tell it was on the back of Avery's mind. I wanted to tell him that it was fine, I could take care of myself. But lest I trigger another argument, I kept my mouth shut. There was no use starting a fight with him, it would do neither of us any good.

"I hope you two weren't out causing trouble," sniffed Aunt Jenny.

"No, Mom, just went out to lunch, that's all."

Avery neglected to add in the detail that I almost got kicked out for harassing the sordid waiter and the fact that we left a one dollar tip. But, that was just minor stuff.

Aunt Jenny looked at us (well, me) suspiciously, then turned to go and finish up the laundry. Aunt Jenny had taken a few days off work to spend time with (keep an eye on) me.

"Well, that's enough excitement for one day," stated Avery, flopping onto the couch and flipping on the TV.

"Fair enough," I nodded, curling up on the end of the couch.

A few hours later I was being prodded awake and the smells of dinner were wafting in the air.

"Ugh, you woke me up for dinner?" I asked, outraged.

"Food before sleep," Uncle Steven replied.

I sighed and pushed myself off the couch, running hands through my hair to make myself look halfway presentable for supper.

"Spaghetti, tonight," Avery said. He was clearly excited over this fact.

"Great," I yawned, taking a seat to his right.

The air was pretty thick with steam and the smell of brewing marinara sauce. It was my great-grandmother's recipe and reminded me of happier times.

It was sort of tradition, to make spaghetti whenever my dad and I came around. Even before my mom got sick, we had spaghetti with great-Grandma's marinara sauce. Dad was also usually the one to make it. He would get up early in the morning and go the farmer's market just to find the perfect ingredients. Then he would come home and spend his day brooding over the sauce. No one was allowed to help, not even Uncle Steven. It was his job and his job alone. And when Dad died, Uncle Steven took up the task, but it was never as good.

"Okay, let's see if I got it right this time," Uncle Steven muttered, placing the steaming vat of Italian goodness on the table.

I smiled a pity smile. He and I both knew that cooking was not and never would be his strong point. I put a modest amount of pasta on my plate and dabbed some of the sauce on top.

"It's good, Dad," Avery stated before he was even finished chewing.

"Very good, honey," Aunt Jenny complimented after she took a dainty bite.

I scooped some into my mouth and nodded. It could have been much worse.

"So, Kyra," Aunt Jenny began. I winced. No matter how I answered that woman, I couldn't give the right answer. "How are you?"

"Eh, I could be worse," I shrugged.

"I see, and how's your…career going?"
"Just fine, Aunt Jenny, just fine." I twirled the noodles on my fork, loosing interest.

"You gonna finish that, Jinx?" asked Avery.

"Nah, here," I replied, sliding it onto his plate.

Uncle Steven watched the act with complete disapproval. He did not choose to voice his opinion, but the feeling stood. I matched his gaze with a dark one of my own. Tension began to take the role steam did in thickening the air. I felt as if I were in the gates, waiting for the bell. Aunt Jenny acted as such, setting things into motion.

"Kyra, you barely touched that."

"I'm just not hungry, Aunt Jenny."

"Even so, you should eat."

"I said I'm not hungry."

"But Kyra—"

"But nothing! I'm not a little kid! I know if I'm hungry and if I'm not!"

"I haven't seen you eat a bite since you stepped in this door!"

"Kyra," Uncle Steven stepped in. I knew this visit was turning out for the worst.

"What? I'm a grown adult; I can make my own decisions!"

"That doesn't mean you can't use some guidance."

"Guidance? That wasn't guidance! That was an order."

"Sometimes you need an order to go on the right track."

"Are we even talking about my eating habits anymore? Or is this about something else?"

"Is it?"

"You know what?" I snapped, standing up, "I think I'm just going to go and check on my truck. It didn't seem to be running so hot when I drove back from lunch."

"Kyra, don't walk away from this!" Uncle Steven exclaimed.

"Walk away from what? I said I'm not hungry. I'll eat later!"

I slammed the door and back of me and stood there for a long moment, just staring. Lord, what had gone wrong? I walked over and slid into the bed of my truck. Lying back I stared at the stars.

"Hey," Avery greeted, sliding in next to me.

"Hey," I replied, scooting over to give him some more room.

"Sorry about what happened in there."
"Yeah, I am too. Think I overreacted?"

"We all did, but, in some ways, you were right."

"God, that entire argument had an entirely other meaning, I knew your mom hated me as a jockey, but I never knew your dad felt that strongly about it, too."

"He's just…"

"Worried? I know. That's all I ever here. Avery, I chose this for a reason. I'm happy, well, mostly. I don't think I could do anything else.

"I was flunking, you know that? Even if I didn't become a jockey, I would have dropped out and waited tables or something. I'm not intelligent, the only thing I do is work hard, and right now that's putting me through life well enough. I don't need anyone's opinion about it. Do you get it or am I just weird?"

"Nah, I see what you're getting at."

"That's good. Hey, Avery?"


"Don't let anyone tell you what they think you should do. You find out what you want to do in life, and you do it. God damn whoever disapproves."

"Sure. And Jinx, for the record, I don't think you're dumb. You're just good in places that school doesn't think is important."

"Isn't everybody?"