The mid-afternoon sun shone bright in the sky, lending a heat-induced haze and the sense of a yellow glow to the air, dry with dust and exhaust fumes. It did nothing to temper the wide smile of the girl’s face as she jumped out of the automobile onto the sidewalk in front of the studio. She took a moment to rotate on the spot, drinking in the industrious clamour of the boulevard. Roy watched her, leaning back against the wall until she noticed him and ran over in delight.
Roy stepped forward and laughed as Alexandria flung herself around his waist without missing a beat, curling his left arm around her shoulder and raising his right a little so as not to get his sling caught up in the enthusiastic embrace. Almost immediately, Alexandria pulled back with a jerk and fixed him with a scowl.
“You hurt yourself again,” she scolded, eyebrows pulled tight, accusingly.
Roy held up his bandaged wrist in protest. “It’s just a sprain, it’s not broken. The doctor says I need to rest it a bit, but I can still show you around my work, c’mon.”
Alexandria planted her feet and tugged at his shirt. “No!” she insisted. “Did you fall again? What happened?” She’d grown over the five years since he’d seen her last, and her round face had become just a little longer, but she still gave the same glare he remembered.
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “Really, I promise. I jumped off a car and landed funny. It happens sometimes. It’s not because I wasn’t being careful. All right?”
There was a pause as Alexandria cocked her head and considered this, then nodded. “Okay. Show me around then?” Her frown gave way once more to a beaming grin full of white teeth.
He held out his good hand for Alexandria to take, and led her into the studio. They were changing up the set from one shoot to another and the place was a noisy bustle: cameras and props being carted around in a chaotic dance, and people running about shouting bursts of instruction and argument at one another at the tops of their lungs. To one side, one of the actors leaned against a wall, dressed in a sharp pinstripe suit with a fanciful green hanky peering out from his breast pocket and a lapel pin in the shape of a four-leaf clover. He lit up a cigarette while patiently watching the mayhem unfold. His narrow and angular face inclined just a little as he noticed Roy approach with Alexandria in tow, and he flicked his fingers up in greeting.
“Roy, buddy,” he mumbled around the cigarette with a faint smile on his thin lips. “How’s the arm?”
“Well, I met Alexandria here back when she’d broken hers, so I guess I can’t complain,” Roy answered with an easy smirk. Alexandria laughed and he put a hand around her shoulders as she leaned into his side playfully. “Alexandria, this is Max. He’s the actor I’m doubling for.”
Max extended his hand for hers and shook it seriously. “Y’know, I’m grateful for the guy,” he told her. “Weren’t for him, it’d be me jumping off cars, and I probably woulda hurt myself way worse.”
Alexandria looked appraisingly from one to the other. “You like this one then?” she asked Roy. He glanced over to Max, unsure of how he’d take that, but Max just threw back his head and cackled.
“I sure hope so! Since I like him a whole lot. You like me, Roy?”
Roy gave a weak laugh. “I like you just fine, Maxie,” he replied, tugging at one of Alexandria’s pigtails in retaliation. “Worked with a guy I didn’t much care for a while back. But that’s in the past.”
Max gave a soft snort of amusement and returned to smoking his cigarette. He glanced across the set. “Looks like Guiseppe’s spotted you,” he said, pointing over to one of the cameramen, who was waving vigorously from behind a tripod. Roy led Alexandria over. The Italian, skinny as a rake to the point that he looked half-tripod himself, beckoned the girl towards him.
“Bella ragazza! Wanna look through the camera?”
Alexandria nodded eagerly, and Guiseppe hooked his hands under her shoulders and lifted her up. Her face scrunched in concentration as she peered through the eyepiece. “Who is the man with the moustache?” she asked. She rubbed her fingers together under her nose. “He looks like a, like a bad guy, who twirls his moustache.”
Roy snorted, glancing over to the set. Right enough, the director had made his way there, arguing with someone over the placement of a table.
“Oh sure, I can see why you’d say that.”
Guiseppe ducked his head out from behind Alexandria’s in a comical fashion. “Oh yeah, that’s the bad guy all right,” he chirped. “Angry, bossy, self-important bad guy.”
“One of these days your big mouth is gonna get you punched.” This voice came from a portly woman coming up behind them, the warm bronze of her face surrounded by a halo of black curls and a cigar jammed between her teeth. “Who’s the girl? You bein’ a bad influence, Guiseppe?”
“It’s Roy’s kid, any bad influencing I’m doing is his fault,” Giuseppe replied, placing Alexandria back on the ground and chuckling as she returned to Roy’s side.
“‘Seppe, Maria, this is Alexandria. She’s not my kid, I’m just minding her for the day. Got a letter from her mother asking a favour—we met back when I was in hospital.” The letter had been a surprise, a laboured affair in neat blocky letters, citing some vague family trouble and a plea to look after Alexandria for a day. It was a strange request, and sparked in Roy a pang of something he couldn’t quite place. But he’d said yes straight away, not allowing it the chance to spook him.
“We’re bandit friends!” Alexandria added with a grin.
“Oh, my mistake, she’s clearly the bad influence on you,” said Maria, and offered her a peppermint.
“Alexandria, Guiseppe works the cameras, and Maria helps make the costumes.” Alexandria gave them both a small wave while stuffing the peppermint into her mouth with enthusiasm. Roy took her hand again, about to take her over for a closer look at the set, but the director chose that moment to stride up.
“Hey! We’re shooting in five, stop loitering! Get the kid outta here, I don’t want it getting in the way. What do you think we are here, a circus? This is a serious business!” He gestured wildly at Alexandria and Roy steered her away while she scowled in his direction.
“So now you know the boss’ character first-hand,” he quipped. “Come on, over here.”
He guided her over to a little out-of-the-way space with a few crates stacked up against the wall and a view of the set. He helped her climb up onto the pile, where they sat kicking their feet against the slatted wood, watching the chaos settle below them, preparing for filming to start. Roy took a moment to stretch out his legs. Physical therapy had been a long road, and though he’d been walking on them again just fine for the past few years, they still got stiff. Alexandria patted his thigh gently, clearly pleased to see them moving.
The two of them watched quietly for a few minutes as the scene played out, something involving one character hiding under a table and another reacting dramatically to the entrance of a third—Max’s character, thought dead but in fact very much alive—through a fancy door at the back of the set. After a couple of takes and some bad-tempered discussion between the actors and director, Roy noticed Alexandria beginning to fidget beside him.
“Hey,” he said, leaning over to mutter in her ear. “Why don’t you tell me the story of what’s going on here?”
“You know the story,” she whispered back at him.
“You know the story. So you should tell it.”
“I already know the story the director’s telling, sure. I wanna know the story you’d tell.”
Alexandria’s fidgeting stilled and she looked thoughtful, nose wrinkled in concentration. She pointed at Max, who disappeared back behind the door, ready for another take.
“He’s… the Green Bandit,” she said, after a moment’s consideration.
“The Green Bandit?” Roy said, incredulous. “There’s another one?”
“Yes!” Alexandria insisted, annoyed at his disbelief.
“Okay, okay, I believe you,” he assured her. He imagined Max in his pinstripe suit, but with an additional poncho and wide-brimmed hat, his green handkerchief pulled up over his face. He smiled at the image. “Was he a friend of the Black Bandit?”
“They were brothers,” Alexandria stated.
“But wait, didn’t the bandit’s brother die?” Roy reminded her, teasingly.
“He is their older brother,” she snapped. “Everyone thought he was dead, so when he comes back, boom, everyone is surprised.” She gestured at the scene playing out on set as if it were patently obvious.
“Right, right, I got it.”
“And he had to find out where the bandit and his daughter were, and he did and said, ‘Surprise!’ and they said, ‘It’s you!’ and they joined up together again.”
“Oh wow, that’s great. I bet they went on lots more adventures together, huh?” His voice wavered, even as he tried to keep it bright and cheerful. He’d expected seeing Alexandria to bring back memories of that time in the hospital, and not all pleasant ones either, but all of a sudden he found his mouth going dry and his heart beating hard and fast in his chest. His memories of that old film set blurred with the black and grey flickers of the movie and the white of the bandages wrapped around Alexandria’s head. He needed a drink. He gripped the fabric of his pants in his left hand instead.
Thankfully, Alexandria didn’t seem to notice his moment of discomfort, gesturing at the set as she continued. “They hide under a table because they have a secret mission. They’re…” She kicked her legs against the crate a couple of times before deciding. “…smuggling.” She said the word a couple more times, sounding like she’d only just recently learned it and liked the way it sounded. “Smuggling. Smuhhh-ggling.”
Roy raised an eyebrow. “You know what smuggling is, young lady?”
“It’s when it’s… not allowed, so it has to be secret. And there’s caves. And it’s usually bottles of… of drinks… with alcohol.”
“What, like this?” Roy pulled out his hip flask. Alexandria studied it and gave an uncertain nod. He waved it under her nose. “Want to try some?”
Alexandria’s eyebrows knitted and she looked at him dubiously, but she took the flask from his hands and unscrewed the lid.
“Juuuust a little sip,” Roy warned, and she obediently tipped her head back slowly and carefully until a little bit trickled into her mouth. She leaned forward almost immediately, a comically disgusted expression on her face, and shoved the hip flask back at him, tongue stuck out of her mouth in distaste.
“Why do you drink it?” she demanded, as Roy chuckled and took a deep swig, letting the burn of the cheap illicit whiskey warm and relax him.
“It makes me feel better,” he said, taking another swig and a deep breath, before returning it to his pocket.
“No it doesn’t,” Alexandria mumbled, picking at a splinter in the crate next to her. “It makes you cry.”
“It what?” Roy almost laughed.
“It makes you cry! By the hospital bed. It made you cry. And then you made me cry.”
“Oh,” he replied hoarsely, the aftertaste turning sour in his mouth and catching in his throat. “I’m sorry.” He felt the memories of guilt and shame rise up within him and swallowed them down. “So, uh, the bandits, what’re they smuggling then?”
“Alcohol,” Alexandria replied resolutely. “It was making people cry so they stole it, from the… the boss, and they’re taking it away.”
“Oh I see,” Roy said weakly.
“In a biiiiig bottle.” Alexandria stretched out her arms for emphasis and Roy snorted.
“Not lots of normal bottles?”
“No!” Alexandria pushed his shoulder. “Stop interrupting. You have to close your eyes and imagine it.”
Of course he did, this was how this worked. Roy settled, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m listening.”
The bottle was huge, more like a giant copper still that five men could stand inside, and it held all the alcohol in the country. It sat, squat and surly, on a wide cart pulled by two horses, looking altogether like a strange two-headed tortoise on the yellow desert sand. Beside it stood the bandits, looking out over their dry and dangerous route studded with cactus and jagged rocky outcrops. The Green Bandit watched, his eyes aloof and narrow above the green kerchief pulled over his face. The Black Bandit watched, hat low over his eyes. The Bandit’s Daughter watched, arms folded in displeasure. Just then, the lookout—
“Who’s the lookout?” Roy asked.
“He has a telescope,” Alexandria told him, holding her curled hands in front of one eye and peering down at the set. “He is frommmm... Italy.”
Roy leaned his head back for a moment in thought. “Ah, I remember him. Galileo Galilei,” he stated, as if he had known all along. “He was a scientist. A seeker of the truth. The alcohol was dulling the minds of the people and making them suggestible. That’s why he joined the Bandits to steal it away.”
With a pause and a short nod, Alexandria granted her approval.
“So, what does he see?”
Galileo held his telescope to his eye, his narrow face screwed up into a squint. The wiriness of his legs was evidenced by a pair of tight burgundy hose, but his top half was enveloped in a lumpy brocade doublet, all ruffles and slashes and bundles of fabric. The bearded scruff around his mouth pulled down in a frown.
Through the eyeglass he could see the Boss and his posse kicking up a dust cloud as they rode the bandits down. He sighed and angled his telescope lower, to where a lone horse was riding ahead of the group. The rider looked up, seeing the sunlight glinting off the telescope lens as Galileo moved it, and lifted her hat in a wave, spurring her horse on faster.
“Who’s she?” Roy asked.
“A spy,” Alexandria explained. “She was pretending to work for the boss so they could steal the alcohol. But he found out, and now she’s running away.”
Roy nodded. “She’s a master of disguise. She’ll be okay, if she makes it back up to the cart.”
Galileo sent her another flash of light, then waved urgently down at the bandits. They looked between each other then nodded decisively, lining up at the top of the gully that the riders would have to pass through to reach their vantage point. The Spy galloped through, her horse snorting with exertion, and the Black Bandit fired a pistol in the air. At his signal, the others began to push at the rocks at the top of the gully, sending them rolling down towards the pursuing riders. A few tumbling stones quickly turned into a rock slide down the rough gravel slopes of the gully, and the dust of the posse ground to a halt as it met the dust of the collapse. An assortment of angry shouts wafted up from within the gully, but for the moment, there they remained.
The lone horse trotted up to the cart, still tucked in behind a small hill above the gully.
“You led them right to us!” Galileo complained.
The Spy gave him a look under the brim of her hat. She was dressed in a rough brown shirt and vest with a pistol at her hip, looking for all the world like a deputy of the most respectable of sheriffs. “I’ll lead ‘em away again,” she drawled around a cigar, and headed to the cart.
The figure that left the cart again was no deputy but a humble nun, her broad face soft instead of hard, and her breath smelling of peppermint. She rode meekly past where the Boss and his posse were clambering up the slope by a different route. With her head bowed kindly, she pointed them in completely the wrong direction when they cornered her and asked where the criminal had run off to. As the posse began to ride off, the Boss looked around suspiciously, giving a contemptuous sniff over his walrus moustache before turning to join the rest of his men.
The ‘nun’ trotted back with an easy smile and Galileo shrugged to concede the point. She reached down to pluck the hat from the Bandit’s Daughter and ruffled her hair. “Getting into trouble, miss?” she teased.
The Bandit’s Daughter opened her mouth to reply. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re hungry?” Roy asked Alexandria. “But it was just getting good.” She gave him a reproving look and Roy relented. “Oh, sure then. Let’s go out onto the street. You like tamales?”
Alexandria nodded mutely as Roy hopped down off the crates and helped her to follow. They left the long forgotten film set behind them as they ventured back out onto the boulevard. The heat was intense and the bustle as much so, the hubris of young Hollywood waging war against the elements, but Roy led Alexandia around a corner to where a tamalero cart stood slightly less overwhelmed than the rest on the main street.
“Hot tamales!” cried its proprietor. “Come get your hot tamales here!” The Mexican man who ran it was a familiar face to Roy, and greeted him as such once they reached the front of the line. He gave a querying look down at Alexandria, then leaned down out of his cart.
“Are you a movie star, little girl?” he asked her, to a giggle in response. “Will you give me an autograph?”
He gave Alexandria a piece of notepaper on which she painstakingly signed her name while Roy bought two tamales. He watched with a mixture of fondness and dismay as she finished writing her name in familiar neat, blocky letters. He didn’t say anything as she passed back the notepaper, just handed her one of the tamales and unwrapped his own clumsily, using the arm in his sling for support. Together they meandered along the road, preoccupied with mouthfuls of corn dough and spiced meat, while Roy tried to figure out how to escape the prison he had unwittingly placed himself in.
There was only one thing for it, he supposed. See it through. He finished his tamale and tossed the empty corn husk to the side of the road. “So, what happened next?” he asked.
“They set off through the desert.”
On the far side of the yellow wastes was the cliff from which they would empty the bottle. But first, there was the journey. The sun beat down upon the cart and the bandits. Galileo sat on top of the bottle, scanning across the horizon with his telescope. The Spy rode ahead on her horse, now dressed in flowing robes to keep herself cool. The Bandits walked together, sweating. Around the cart, dust devils swirled and tumbleweeds rolled past.
The Green Bandit took his water flask and shook it morosely. The droplets left inside splashed around in a miserable manner. “If we don’t find water soon,” he murmured, gazing out into the distance, “we will die of thirst before we reach the cliff.”
The Black Bandit raised an eyebrow and looked up at the giant bottle still sat on the cart. His Daughter tugged on his sleeve and shook her head emphatically. He sighed, and looked to Galileo instead. Galileo surveyed the scenery for a moment longer, then pointed over towards a smudge of blue in the distance.
“There is a valley over that way!” he exclaimed. “Not far. I see light there, glinting off water.”
It was decided. The cart and the companions set off towards the valley.
It was close to evening when they reached it. Not so much a natural gorge, the valley curved downwards,with smooth-sided walls in the shape of an upturned helmet and a still pool of water collected in the bottom. The Black Bandit and his Daughter gave each other a knowing look, and sneaked up to the edge. A narrow spiral staircase led down from the rim to the water’s edge, but the top of the staircase was guarded by a small tower and a group of white-robed guardians.
The companions put their heads together, and the Black Bandit finally proposed that the Spy approach the guardians of the water. Switching out her sand-coloured robes for white ones, the Spy looked uneasy but veiled her face anyway and approached the guardians, holding herself with the same upright dignity that they did. They offered her a large clay jar, and she disappeared behind the lip of the valley. While they waited for her return, cart hidden behind an outcrop, Galileo let the Green Bandit and the Bandit’s Daughter take it in turns to scan the horizon for pursuers while the Black Bandit stayed close to the rim, out of sight. The horizon remained clear, and the sky turned from pale blue to deep purple.
There was the sound of pounding feet and the Black Bandit emerged around the outcrop, carrying the heavy clay jar of water and gesturing for them to get moving.
“Where’s the Spy?” the Green Bandit asked.
In response, the Black Bandit gestured back at the rim of the valley. They all peered around the side of the outcrop and saw the Spy there. She was surrounded by a mob of the white-robed guardians, preventing her from going any further.
“Prove to us who you are,” one of them growled, and presented her with a piece of paper. Slowly, nervously, she wrote a name in neat, blocky letters—it was a false name, but it didn’t matter. With a triumphant hoot, the guardians raised their hoods up and hooked their arms around hers, dragging her back towards their tower. She screamed and kicked in fear.
“We have to rescue her!” cried the Bandit’s Daughter, making to run after them.
“No,” said Roy. “We have to run.” He took Alexandria’s hand and they bolted down the street, whooping and yelling, until he tugged her into a nearby alley and made a show of furtively looking around the corner for pursuers.
“Why did they have to run?” Alexandria complained.
“Because there were too many of them to fight.”
“How did they know who she was?”
Roy looked down at her, a familiar pang clenching his gut. He pulled out his flask. “You’ll find out soon,” he replied, and took a gulp. “So, what next?”
A fire burned from the top of the water guardians’ tower as the Bandits and Galileo rode the cart desperately into the night. They rode until the fire was an orange glow just beyond the horizon. Then they stopped to rest, cupping their hands to drink from the clay jar of water and wondering what to do next. Galileo wrapped an arm around the Bandit’s Daughter, who was shivering from the cold, and handed her the telescope.
“Look up here,” he told her, pointing to a bright point of light in the sky. “See, it looks like a star when you look at it with your eyes. But if you look through the telescope…”
Through her curled hands, Alexandria peered down at the sketch Roy drew, leaning on the top of a barrel they had found in the alleyway. “What is it?” she whispered.
Roy pointed at the large circle in the centre. “That’s the planet Jupiter,” he told her. “The biggest planet in the sky. And these…” He indicated the smaller circles strewn in a line that cut across its middle. “...are his moons.”
Alexandria let out a slow breath, fascinated. Roy handed her the paper and helped her to label it with their fanciful names: Jupiter, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Io. With her attention occupied, he stared down at her, and at her writing. He was almost certain. He sighed and took another drink as she finished it off, leaning his face into one hand. Alexandria looked back up at him, querying, and he changed his pose into a thoughtful one.
“There are many people out there who will tell you that the world is small,” Galileo whispered in the ear of the Bandit’s Daughter as she peered at the pinprick lights of the moons in reds and oranges. “But there is more out there than you can imagine. You just have to move forward, look beyond the past. Find the truth, and find people who will help you, not hinder you.”
The Black Bandit and Green Bandit approached at that moment. “We have been scouting,” the Green Bandit told them. “We found somewhere we can stay the night.”
The Black Bandit took the reins of the cart. A brisk trot under the stars later, breath emerging in little white clouds from the mouths of humans and horses, they arrived at a plain stone building with a triangular roof. After giving the tall wooden door a firm knock, a minute or two of silence passed before it was opened. Warm golden light spilled out from inside, and in the entranceway stood four men in black cassocks embroidered in gold, their faces lined and severe.
“A church!” Galileo gasped in alarm. “No! They want to kill me if I do not renounce the truth of my work!” The Green Bandit reached for his niece’s hand and looked from man to building and back, clearly having expected neither the building’s contents nor Galileo’s outburst. The Black Bandit just watched grimly, however, as the four priests ran out of the building, followed by a stream of acolytes.
Galileo made to run but was swiftly surrounded, crying out in distress as he was borne back towards the church above their heads. “I will not renounce the truth!” he cried, and the church doors closed behind them.
Once more the Bandit’s Daughter made to run for the doors, but the Black Bandit scooped her up in his arms. “We cannot attack a church,” he said gravely. “It would damn us.” So instead they ran again, backs to the pillar of flame that burned at the front of the church, ran until steam flowed from their mouths like a river. Their blood ran hot with fear and sorrow and kept them warm until the horizon began to lighten once more.
The Bandit’s Daughter pushed against her father’s hold. “You’re doing it again!”
“Doing what?” said Roy. He’d led Alexandria through the alleyways to the back of the studio again, and paused at the door that would take them back inside.
“Spoiling it!” Alexandria replied with a scowl.
“I’m not spoiling it,” Roy told her, taking another swig from the flask. “I’m just telling you what happens.”
Alexandria stood her ground. “No, I’m telling you. Remember? They camp,” she told him. “Somewhere safe. They’re warm. They rest.”
“But when they wake up, they’re surrounded,” Roy retorted, mouth hot and stung from the whisky and just hitting its stride. “The boss’ men followed the fires and spotted the smoke from their camp.”
“Why are you doing this?!”
The Black Bandit turned from the posse, who’d come down off their horses and were approaching with pistols in hand, and faced the Green Bandit. “Because this is who I am. A traitor. I showed the guardians a sample of the Spy’s handwriting. I knew Galileo was in trouble with the church so that’s where I led us for shelter. And you…” He reached out and tore the green handkerchief from his fellow bandit’s face. “...are not my brother!”
“Stop, stop!” the Bandit’s Daughter cried, tugging his arm in distress. The Green Bandit’s unmasked face was open in shock, his pointed features truly nothing like the Black Bandit’s after all.
“It was just an act,” he continued, as the Boss’ men surrounded the Green Bandit and hauled him back towards a jail wagon. “Because he needed to get out of town, and it was convenient to pretend. But he shouldn’t have trusted me. I betray everyone.”
“No! No, they’ll kill you!” Tears were forming in the Daughter’s eyes as she continued to pull on his arm. He shrugged her off. The Boss rode up on his white horse, his mouth a stern line under his bushy moustache. He made no move to shoot the Bandit, only looked at him expectantly.
“And the daughter! Her too!” Roy snarled into his flask, tears in his own eyes but refusing to stop. “He hands her over to the Boss. She’ll be safer there. She’ll have a better life. He can’t take care of her, see. He’s a thief and a liar. A danger to everyone. He has to go into exile, pay for his crimes.” Roy slumped onto the ground by the door, back against the wall. He leant his head back, watching the rooftops swim in his vision.
“She doesn’t care!” Alexandria insisted, grabbing his hand tightly and sitting next to him. “She wants to go with him!”
“But she’s a liar too! Isn’t that right?” Roy took his hand away, reached into his pocket and tugged out the folded letter he’d received five days ago, shaking it out so its starkly familiar blocky letters were plain to see. “Your mother didn’t write that letter, did she? It’s your writing. You lied, why would you do that?”
It hadn’t been hard to put together. The vagueness of the request, it appearing out of nowhere even though he’d only met her mother once or twice—and she hadn’t even spoken English at the time—Alexandria showing up out of the blue in a taxi with no one else with her. And now he was here, slumped against a wall with a kid he shouldn’t have, who he hadn’t seen in five years, and somehow he was crying—god, why was he crying?
Alexandria’s face crumpled and she buried her face in her own hands. “Why don’t you want to see me?” she wailed. “I missed you so much. I always wanted to see you again, and when I had to go to the hospital again I ask for your address so I can write to you and the nurse snuck it to me, but I lost it and then I found it but it was so long I wanted to make it very important so you would definitely say yes.” She heaved in a great breath and began to sob.
Roy took in the story blankly, mouth hanging open as his mind caught up. Then in a moment of decisiveness he lurched to his feet, tossing the letter aside and curling his hand around Alexandria’s wrist.
“Come on,” he said, voice thick, as he pulled her to her feet. “I’m going to get you a cab.”
Alexandria struggled against his grip but he was able to start pulling her firmly towards the road while she howled her protests. “I just wanted to see my friend again! Why can’t we be friends, why do you have to spoil it?” She kicked him in the shin for good measure and Roy yelped at the surprising burst of pain a small foot could inflict.
“I’d spoil it anyway,” he hissed, irritated at the scene Alexandria was making, unwilling to pull her out onto the main street until she calmed down, or it wouldn’t look good. “I might as well do it on purpose, save you the time. You have to move on—just because I’m alive, doesn’t mean…” He felt his voice crack and the tears return at the admission. “Yeah, I’m alive because of you. But that doesn’t make me good. I’m no good for you.” He gave a bitter, choking laugh. “I’m bad at looking after you. I can’t even be useful as a babysitter. You shouldn’t want me as a friend.”
He weakened enough for Alexandria to pull them to stop. But instead of pulling free, she moved in to wrap her arms around him, cheek pressing tightly to the centre of his chest and fingers clutching his back. “You are good,” she murmured into his shirt. “You’re only pretending to be bad. Please. Don’t pretend anymore.”
All seemed lost as the Boss’ men moved in to take the Bandit’s Daughter away. But then there was a hearty cackle from behind them. There sat the Green Bandit, on the horse that had been hitched to the jail wagon. “Why, you didn’t think my niece would let me get taken to jail without a lockpick, did you?” he said, brandishing a pin in the shape of a four-leafed clover and grinning widely. The Boss and his men turned to look at him in confusion.
“Also,” he continued, “I have now stolen your horses!” With a cry of, “Yah!” he fired a pistol over the heads of the horses, which he had silently untied minutes before, causing them to bolt. His own horse reared dramatically, and he raised his hat at the other Bandits before riding away himself. The Boss gave a roar of fury and galloped after him, his now horseless posse running after them, shouting and yelling fruitlessly until their voices faded into the distance. The Black Bandit looked down at his Daughter with his eyebrows raised. She looked back up at him with a smile and a shrug.
The Boss and his posse far behind them, the Black Bandit and the Bandit’s Daughter sat alone on the cart as it trudged onwards into the wilderness. The sand turned golden yellow in the afternoon sunlight, then dusky orange. Eventually, the Daughter pulled on the Bandit’s arm and pointed. There, a little to their right, was the edge of the cliff. She stared at him, resolute, as he stubbornly urged the cart onwards, looking straight ahead. And then he glanced down to meet her gaze, and melted.
They pulled the cart up alongside the cliff edge. Far beneath them, sunset-pinkened scrubland stretched out towards the horizon where it blended into dark forest and the distant lilac shadows of mountains. The bottle—more a giant metal water tank, really—was too heavy to move by themselves, but they unhitched the horses and cut away the wooden struts that allowed the cart to stand upright.
Under its own weight, the hulking copper vessel toppled over the lip of the cart and onto its side. Released, its contents arced over the edge of the cliff in an amber waterfall. As it fell, the winds above the plains caught it, sweeping the plummeting liquid into a twinkling cloud of droplets that drifted away into the air. The Bandit and his Daughter sat on the top of the cliff, their legs dangling from the edge, and watched it fly away, every last drop.
The Bandit gave a sigh, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She burrowed into his side, tucking her head against his chest. “So,” he said, suddenly weary. “What happens now?”
It was some time later when Maria slipped through the back door to the studio, lighting up a cigarette and muttering to herself about peace and quiet. She started a little at the sight before her on turning around—Roy and Alexandria sat against the wall, side by side with arms around each other and eyelids drooping, beside a drying puddle and an empty flask.
“Say, you two all right?” she asked hesitantly, as if unsure for a moment whether they were awake. “What happened here, kid? There trouble?” She glared daggers at Roy.
Roy shifted and twisted his head to look down at Alexandria. The girl’s eyes flicked all the way open and she met Maria’s gaze firmly. “Bandit business,” she told her with a stern stare, and said no more. Roy tossed his head back and laughed.
The tops of the palm trees glowed with an orange light, their trunks already purple in the shadow of the hills, lining the road like torches as Roy drove Alexandria home one-handed. Alexandria watched them out the window, quiet and pensive. Roy felt no compulsion to break the silence, focusing instead on working out the instructions she’d given him for returning to the orange grove where her family worked.
It was only as the last of the sunlight left the treetops and urban palms made way for farmland that Alexandria tilted her head to look over at Roy. “We’re friends, right?” she asked him.
He glanced over at her. Her brown eyes were wide and hopeful, the same eyes that had looked up to him as a five-year-old and yet so different.
“Sure we are,” he said distractedly, returning his eyes to the road and the endless fruit trees on either side. Could that be called a friendship, he wondered—a grown man and a child he wasn’t related to, who he hadn’t seen in years and hadn’t known long in the first place? A kid who admired and idealised someone he most certainly wasn’t?
“Will I see you again?”
“Maybe. If your mom lets you, sure.”
“Do you want to see me again?”
Roy gave out a huff of air that didn’t quite make it to a laugh. He couldn’t understand it, why she’d ever want to revisit someone who barely had his life together, who only managed to upset her. Only the fact that one hand was in a sling and the other on the wheel stopped him from patting his pocket for the flask, even as he remembered that it was empty.
And then it struck him that that wasn’t what Alexandria had asked him at all. He couldn’t fathom why she’d made up her mind the way she did, but she had. He had to make up his own. He looked at her properly then, the bright, stubborn girl beside him, determined and stalwart, who made him laugh and think on his feet, who had reached out and pulled him back from the brink of darkness before and was somehow doing so again.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely, and meant it. “Yeah I do.” She beamed at him as he pulled the car to a stop. He opened the passenger side door for her, and as she stepped out she hugged him tightly.
“Bandit friends?” she said, lifting her chin and resting it against his ribs with a smile.
“Bandit friends,” Roy agreed, and held her tightly before leading her back to her mother.