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Siren
By
Frank_Lee

Siren

They pulled a polyethylene drop sheet over his body as he lay in the trench. Demonic laughter merged with the sound of heavy plastic.

“Dancin’ with the devil now, motherfucker,” somebody said up above the crinkle.

More laughter, voices fading off toward the outer fringes of the junkyard.

They left the knife in his thigh, along with three bullets in the trunk of his body.

Officer Townes Baylor was rat feed.

Everything was a swirl of nothing and darkness. No angels showed up to lead their child home.

Then it started raining. Patter on heavy plastic. Something vague as breath was washing back against his mouth. The belly of the trench started feeling wet. Rainwater or blood. Maybe both.

Townes’ body started to shiver. It felt wrong somehow. It was interfering with the sweet, smoky oblivion of his death.

Then he bolted upright, pushing the sheet off and pulling in a wet gasp against the burning spikes in his body. He pushed the sheet down toward his knees and studied the knife in his thigh. He drew it out slowly, gnashing his teeth and wincing. A fresh spout of blood followed the blade out of his leg. His sidearm was lying out there somewhere in the junkyard mud where the first shot hit him. He was sure of being alone now – left for dead – but he kept a hard grip on the knife just in case and pushed himself up through a stratosphere of pain.

***

Townes killed the lights and leaned forward with his arms across the steering wheel. Engine running. The kind of music you don’t notice ‘til it ends. He watched the rain shred the nimbus of a street light a while. Downhill grade. He peered up at the façade of the house, gauging which window Cray was behind. There were only two with pale light in them. Shadows played on the curtains on the second floor. Something like a ceiling fan someone forgot to shut off. Third floor window flickered with power surges.

As long as Cutler had his story right, Cray would be in one of those rooms.

He shut down the engine and got out of the truck. Pulled the long rain slicker tight around him. Reached up and pushed the wide brimmed hat down tighter, keeping the rain off his face. Mostly.

Hard rain like this felt like home. It was the rain that saved his life that last time he saw Cray.

The cement walk ran along the right side of the house to the back. Up close, it was easier to see how much of the submarine grey paint had flaked off the clapboards. When he reached the back, Townes scanned the cramped patio for something to break a window pane in the back door, but on a whim he decided to yank on the bulkhead. It pulled open with a creak and he went down cracked cement steps into the basement.

It was dank and musty and stank of fungus. He made his way across by the light of his cell phone to the stairs leading up into the house. With the same knife on his belt he’d pulled out of his leg in a junkyard ditch two years before, he took the stairs with quiet, methodical steps.

When he got to the second floor, three or four muted voices came through the door. It sounded like two conversations going on at once. Desultory tones. The end of the party Cutler said he should wait out.

He kept going. At the third floor, the door opened on a kitchen that hadn’t looked new in forty years. It was small, but he walked through it carefully, stopping in the doorframe leading to a living room, the inner half of a split parlor, with worn, hardwood floors and horsehair walls with chips dinged out of them.

Everyone inside was naked and looked half alive. There was a man passed out on an old, fabric couch. His body was on a slant. He wasn’t in bad shape. Wasn’t in good shape, either. His legs were splayed open like a frog and his jaw was slack.

Two blonde women in their twenties were sitting at a folding card table. Between them was a mirror with a mound of powder and a razor blade. One look and he could taste it deep in his sinuses. Pure sense memory. His right hand balled into a fist. Beside the mirror was a box of insulin syringes and what looked like a small stack of credit cards, but the blondes were rifling through a thick wallet that probably belonged to the unconscious man. They were grinding their jaws like they had bees flying around inside their mouths. One of them pulled a large wad of cash out of the wallet and started counting it before the other put her hand on her wrist and nodded at Townes.

“Oh,” said the one who was counting the money. She looked at Townes and snorted air. “Fuck, he’s big.” She said it to her friend as if he hadn’t been standing there. The friend let out a giggle that sounded like it migrated from hell and ended up in her grinding jaw.

“Yer cock big as the rest a ya?” the friend said, craning her neck.

He was staring past them at the mole hill of coke on the mirror, thinking back on a stretch of living like a car crash. Eyes turning to wet glass.

The two blondes caught his gaze. They looked at each other and laughed. When the cackle faded, the sound of someone moaning somewhere sifted through.

“Cray up here?” he asked, slowly pulling his eyes from the powder to the one with the money in her hands. It looked like she had some kind of glitter on her body. At least what she hadn’t sweat off. Her thighs were half open and she kept her bald slit trained on Townes.

A woman started to sing. It was coming from one of the half open doorways off the far side of the parlor. The voice was weak and scratchy but not without a prettiness for just being feminine.

“Why you want Cray?” the friend asked.

“Old friend is all.”

“Cray ain’t got no friends,” the one with the money said.

“You could fuck us…big as ya are ‘n all,” cackled the other one.

“Where is he?”

Impatience rang at the edge of Townes’ voice and the one with the money in her hands put one of the half wads of cash back on the table and picked up the razor blade. He took a step into the room and tipped his hat upward just enough to give her a look at his face. He took a slow, quiet breath, filling his body with air, making himself look bigger. Like hawks do with their feathers. Then he asked again. The blonde seemed to understand she wouldn’t inflict much damage before Townes got his hands around her neck, if that’s what went into his mind to do.

“Whatever. Don’ wanna fuck us that’s yer business.” She pulled the mirror close and went to work on a mound of powder with the blade.

“Talk to his whore. In there,” the friend said, nodding off at the other half of the parlor. “Anybody knows where the freak is it’ll be her. He practically don’t touch nothin’ else.”

The singing from the other room cut out a few seconds, then started up again. Fainter this time. Townes crossed the room to the empty double doorway to the other side of the parlor. Sitting in the far corner on the floor was a naked brunette with her head lowered onto her forearms, bridged across her knees while her feet grabbed at the floor half sideways. Her skin was only a few shades lighter than her hair, straight and flowing around her shoulder blades. Even in the dim light, her bald pussy was conspicuously peering out from between the backs of her raised thighs.

The scratchy singing faltered but then continued. The nearby moaning followed a similar pattern.

The girl in the corner was still. She might have been asleep, but it would’ve seemed a small miracle to sleep in the position she was in. Townes’ eyes traveled over the lines of her body. She was supple and shapely, but somehow came off willowy, even sitting down. There was a dainty selflessness to the pout of her pussy, like something sad yet ferociously beautiful.

She struck him like some kind of gutter angel, a fine and precious thing dropped down where she sat from a vast height, left on her own to meander the maze-like cesspool of the human world without a roadmap, yet durable enough to survive the fall.

Townes stepped quietly toward the doorway where the singing was coming from. He pushed the door open and looked in. A naked woman with dark, close cropped hair lay on the bed singing half-heartedly at the ceiling as she absently twirled her nipples in the fingers of each hand. One leg was extended off to the side while the other was raised.

He slowly moved on to the doorway where the moaning was coming from. The door creaked as he pushed it open. There was a naked man sitting on the closed lid of the toilet seat. A younger man in a long, dark wig, wearing twice as much makeup as any of the women was sitting on the floor between the older one’s legs, sucking his half flaccid cock.

The cock looked as hard as it was going to get anytime soon. He was leaning against the toilet lolling his head, moaning like a bad actor.

The younger one paused and looked up at Townes. “Wanna come in?”

“Fuck that shit,” the one on the toilet said. “C’mon, baby, just give it a little more time.”

The younger man rolled his eyes and kept sucking.

The whole world was either waiting to get fucked or fucked up.

Townes turned out of the doorway and approached the girl on the floor. He knelt in front of her and tapped her big toe with his finger.

“What’s your name?” He spoke softly. Gentle. Even squatting, he was aware of the way his size would block her view of the room.

Her head tilted up. Her eyes were clear and almost curious.

“Siren. You come up to fuck me?” she asked. “Cray don’t usually let nobody fuck me. You can cum on me if you want. Just can’t put it in nowhere. Cray’d get really pissed.”

“I’m not here to cum on you. Matter of fact, I was kind of looking for your boyfriend.”

“Couldn’t really call him that,” she said. “Not tecknicly, anyhow. I’m just one’a his things. Ain’t my call.”

The blonde and her friend in the kitchen had quit talking. There was nothing but the intermittent sound of long, hard snorting. He could taste every blast like a spike of paradise shooting through his brain, but he forced himself to keep his eye on Siren.

“What would you call him, then, if he’s not your boyfriend?”

She paused and her eyes drifted briefly to the side. “Well…I know he ain’t nothin’, but he ain’t nothin’ to me. Not really.”

Townes studied her face, waiting to see if she’d wince or suck in her cheeks. Anything to register an attitude about what she said. But there was nothing. As he watched her he could almost feel the texture of her skin on the pads of his fingers.

“Hm. Strange.”

“What is?”

“The fact that you let someone who’s nothing to you tell you who you can or can’t…fuck…or whatever.”

“Ain’t so strange if you’re me.”

“And who’s that, exactly? You, I mean.”

“Just a girl. Nothin’ much.”

He tilted his head and regarded her. “You sure about that?”

“Pretty much.”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t be. Something tells me you’re missing something.”

“Such is?”

She raised her brow, as if challenging him to give a proper answer but knowing he couldn’t.

“Don’t people tell you you’re beautiful?”

“Aw…guess so. But that ain’t much. Just somethin’ that gets laid on ya without yer askin’ for it.”

“S’pose so,” he nodded, as if he understood more than the theory. “Where are you from, Siren?”

“No one place in particular. Buncha towns with navy bases. Most ain’t worth remembering.”

“You got a family?”

She looked at him in silence. Her eyes did this thing where it looked like they were changing color without really changing color. Her breasts hid behind her raised legs. They were neither big nor small, but as full and round as a pair of naked breasts ever needed to be.

“You come to fuck him up?” she finally asked.

Townes watched her eyes and gave her the truth. “Just here to repay a courtesy is all.”

“He ain’t courteous to nobody. ‘Cep maybe them freakboys follow him around everywhere.”

Townes smiled. “S’pose not. Those boys hangin’ around Cray now?”

“Fleas on a dog, Mister. Guess you be owin’ them a little courtesy, too, huh?”

“Just the ones I met before.”

She spent a moment seeing his face. “’Kay. Don’ know when I saw somebody look so mean and calm, too,” she said. Then she seemed to realize he was soaking wet for the first time. “Rainin’, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Ain’t hardly been out in the rain in a while.”

“Don’t get out much, do you, Siren?”

“Not lately.” She looked down and sideways. “I wouldn’t mind, ya know. If ya wanted.”

“To fuck, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Look at me, Siren.”

She turned her face back up. Townes took off his hat and laid it on the floor. He touched the edge of her jaw and scrubbed his thumb across her cheek.

“You got any friends?”

“Not lately,” she said.

“Those ladies back there? They’re not your friends?”

“Not hardly, sir.”

“Nobody calls me sir anymore. You don’t have to, either.”

“Don’t know your name, sir.”

“You can call me T, if you want.”

“That’d be ok. Good as any other letter, I s’pose.”

Townes smiled. It felt strange, like his face didn’t quite remember how, but he found himself wrapped up in the profound wish Siren was the sole reason he was there. It didn’t matter he hadn’t known she existed until now. This naked, chocolate haired waif cowering in the corner on the floor was changing every idea that had given him cold comfort in the time he’d spent waiting, surviving, transforming himself into something fearsome.

“Would you like if I took you somewhere?” he asked softly. “Anywhere you want. Even someplace far enough away you wouldn’t have to come back.”

“Aint’cha ‘fraid of gettin’ killed?”

Townes smiled again. It still felt like it didn’t fit on his face even though he felt it inside. “Already been.”

Siren studied his face and her eyes widened. “Yer that guy,” she said.

“Yeah, I’m that guy,” he said. He retrieved his hat off the floor and put it back on his head, plunging his face in shadow again. The brown haired girl looked off to the side. Thinking.

“You’d really walk me outta here?” It looked like she was asking the baseboard on the other side of the room.

“Nothing to it,” he said.

“Easy for you to say.”

“Are you being forced to be here, Siren?”

“Ya make it sound simple.”

“It kind of is. Kind of.”

More thinking as she pulled her knees up tighter to her breasts. “Where’m I s’pose ta go? Girl like me ‘n shit.”

“Do you even know what kind of girl you are, Siren?”

“Just what people say.”

“And what do they say?”

“Simple. Not too good for much but whorin’. But I’m pretty good at that, so…”

Townes touched her face again. It was hard not to. She followed the pull of his finger so she was looking at him again. He had her at twenty, give or take, but she looked older and younger all at the same time. Neither happy nor sad, the half bewildered sense of ennui in her eyes translated into something wrong.

“I imagine people use that word a lot around you, don’t they?” She nodded yes with her eyelids. “Lotta people seem to like that word. Use it to hurt someone. Make ‘em feel small. Sometimes they use it to make somebody feel special in a funny kinda way. But just fucking a bunch of people isn’t what makes somebody a whore.”

“Never thought about it much,” she said. “Just sump’n ta do. Might’s well be fryin’ eggs or whatever.”

Townes reached her face with his other hand and held her between his palms. “Do you think you’re pretty, Siren?”

“Depends on the day, I guess.”

She let her eyes drop from his shadowy face but didn’t resist his hold on her head. Townes studied her eyes and cheekbones. The night was getting ready to roll over in its grave. Everything left that needed doing was better done before the sun came up and made everything a little uglier.

Looking at Siren, Townes felt the ball of rage inside him suddenly go slack. Since the night he’d gotten up and walked out of that ditch, staggering three miles to the first hospital he could find, months of pain and recovery, heavy medication – recreational and otherwise - another year transforming himself, building his body and mind into an immovable wall of menace, nights working the most dangerous nightclub doors he could find, testing himself, keeping himself sharp until his day of redemption came, he’d thought of only one thing, but now…

…he was just holding this hapless girl’s face in his hands, and it was simple, beautiful, soothing in a way he never expected, even before the man he was had been killed. He imagined the possibility of looking into a face like hers and forgetting how to hate. He imagined the blind freedom of Cray meaning nothing. He could still walk downstairs and kill him in a minute or two, but that would only turn him into another kind of burden.

“It’s time to go, Siren. If you’re coming, it has to be now.”

Townes rose to his feet and held his hand out for the brown haired girl with a cruel name. She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet like he could’ve been handing her a cup of tea.

“I got some clothes downstairs,” she told him. “Don’t favor packin’ ‘em up much, though.”

“Here…” He took off his heavy slicker and put it around her shoulders. “I got some stuff at my place you can use. You can stay there ‘til you decide where you want to go.”

She took a moment to scan the size and width of his body in the tightly stretched T shirt he’d been wearing under the raincoat.

“Said they put five or six bullets in you.” She kept looking at his body, as if she were wondering where all the bullets went in.

“They were exaggerating,” he said.

Townes led Siren out of the room by the hand. The scratchy singing had stopped. There was still moaning coming from the bathroom, but it was the other voice now. The naked, frog legged man was still passed out on the couch, but the two women were gone. He forced himself not to look at the mirror on the table. He knew there’d be nothing left but finger smudges anyway.

When they got to the second floor, Townes paused at the apartment door instead of heading straight down. He studied the door a moment, then turned to face Siren, who was still holding his hand. He asked how many were probably inside.

“Cray, for sure,” she said. “And prolly Snake and Freakshow. I think you already met them two. Maybe them whores from upstairs. The others woulda flaked off by now or passed out somewhere.”

“You gonna wait for me here?”

“Long as you come back alive.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I just have something I need to give back to Cray.”

The door was unlocked, and the apartment was a mirror layout of the one upstairs, except for being in slightly better repair. Townes walked in and set his hat on top of the refrigerator. When he stepped into parlor, he recognized the younger man on the couch from two years ago. His curly, dark hair was much longer, but his glazed, jackal eyes were just the same. One of the blondes from upstairs was riding his cock reverse cowgirl style while her friend sat off to the side rubbing his balls.

“Garden ‘o fuckin’ earthly delights, what I say,” Cray cackled as he watched the couch with glassy, unfocussed eyes from a seat behind a cheap wooden card table in the other half of the parlor. “Ginger, you can fuck just like Mrs. America. Share that prize like you were born to it…”

Then he spotted Townes standing in the doorway and squinted suspiciously at him. “Who the fuck’re you and how did you get into our house?”

“Relax, Cray. I’m an old friend. Ginger let me in. Don’t you even recognize me?”

Townes had been forty pounds heavier than the last time Cray had laid eyes on him. Now he looked more like an insane asylum wall, pony tail tied up high on the back of his head, arms covered with ink in the style of Maori warriors, and eyes that had lost their fear of anything as hopeless as Cray.

Townes grinned and held out his open hands to show Cray they were empty as he slowly approached the table. The curly haired man on the couch was too busy with the blondes to bother noticing the knife on the back of Townes’ belt. He approached the table and set his hands down on it, looking Cray in the eye.

Cray’s right hand was resting on top of the table. There was a piece of paper under his hand with some writing on it. Two years ago, Cray’s light brown hair was long, but now it was buzzed close to his skull. He had a long scar three inches above his ear that would’ve been covered if his hair had been a little longer. His eyes were the same, vacant steel blue, and right now, they were trying to track Townes’ face.

“You’re no friend of mine,” Cray said. “State your business. Make it good or you’ll be leaving here in a bag.”

“Aw, Cray. I still can’t believe you don’t remember your old friends. I just came by to return something that belongs to you.”

Ginger was gasping more like she needed another blast of coke than the cock she was wrenching by rote with her body. Townes reached back and slipped the knife out of its sheath. Before Cray had a chance to blink, he whipped his arm around in an arc and drove the blade through his hand, sinking it deeply into the table and pinning down Cray’s hand.

“Motherfucker!” Cray screamed.

“Da fuck, Ginger…get off,” the guy on the couch shouted.

Townes turned to the curly haired man who was approaching him, but he stopped in the middle of the room before he could come within Townes’ long reach. Naked, he looked scrawny next to Townes, and with his cock already wilting, he held up his hands and backed away.

Townes turned back to Cray who was gripping his pinned arm by the wrist with his good one. The big man leaned back down on the table, leaning in lower and closer this time.

“Recognize me now?” he said. “I just came to give you back your property.”

Cray took a good look through a veil of pain at the knife and the realization blossomed on his face. Derision mixed with the pain. A circle of blood was forming around his hand. Whatever had been written on the paper under his palm was blotted out by now.

“I fucking killed you,” Cray spat.

“Now yes, sir, that’s very true, after a fashion,” Townes nodded, as if they were talking over baseball scores. “But I to try look on the bright side, and if you think of it another way, you’re the one who brought me alive.”

“Maybe you ain’t hit the floor yet, but you’re as dead as you shoulda `been two years ago, motherfucker.”

Townes reached across the table and grabbed Cray by the neck, pressing his thumb against the other man’s wind pipe with gentle insistence.

“I was planning to bury that knife right here where my thumb is,” he said. “But since you did me such a solid, I guess I owe you.”

Cray’s face was going pale as he winced against the pain and strained to hold his gaze steady. He brought his free hand to Townes’ wrist, clawing at his wrist in an attempt to break the bigger man’s iron grip. Standing above him, Townes played with the pressure of his thumb against his throat, imagining the reality he’d first envisioned in which he forced the breath permanently out of his body.

In the end, he let Cray breathe. He remembered Siren waiting in the darkness of the hall.

Pulling his hand away, Townes rose back to his full height and briefly scanned the room. It was empty, but for Cray and himself. One unnatural color was beginning to replace the other already draining from his face as he sucked air hard into his body.

“You better get that hand looked at. You wouldn’t want to go and die like a worthless pig from something as stupid as an infection. That would ruin this feeling of benevolence I’ve recently acquired.”

He took a couple of steps backward and stood in the middle of the room. The dead silence emanating from the bedrooms had his senses on edge. Only one of them was lit. He thought for a moment he should check the room before turning his back to go, but if anyone were going to come after him with a better weapon it would’ve happened by now.

Cray’s jaw kept moving as if he still had a threat worth making. Townes just pitied him now as the pallor of his skin grew wan, though he was still unsure of how to organize the rage he’d been saving up to spend right here and now.

“Sir?” The tiny voice from the hallway came to him like water being poured into an empty glass. “You comin’?”

Cray’s eyes drifted toward the sound without seeming to track or land. The pool of blood around his hand was steadily growing larger. His free hand was hanging limp by his side. He was on the verge of going into shock, if he wasn’t already there.

“Yeah,” Townes called back toward the door. “You okay?”

“Yup. Waitin’ fer you is all.”

“Won’t be much longer.” Nothing was happening according to the dozen visions he’d had. None of them were supposed to be alive by now.

Townes moved quickly back to the table and wrenched the knife back up with a rapid sweep of his hand. Cray winced and cried out, pulling the wounded hand into his lap where he cradled it with the good one. The fresh blast of pain seemed to pull him back.

“Siren,” he said, his voice constricted with pain. “You can’t take her away.”

Townes ignored him and scanned the apartment. The layout was the same as the next floor up. Only his orientation seemed different as he’d come in through the main hallway. He spotted a dish rag hanging off the edge of the kitchen sink. He moved for it, briefly turning his back on Cray. Grabbing the rag, he wiped the knife thoroughly and moved into the lit bedroom doorway. Cray was calling Siren’s name as he turned his back.

The curly haired one was sitting on the edge of a mattress on the floor. He’d pulled on a pair of jeans but hadn’t zipped them up. He looked smaller than before. Deflated and a little disoriented.

Ginger and the other blonde were sitting apart from him on the far end of the mattress. They were sitting close. Touching. Running their hands along each other’s thigh and speaking in hushed tones. The tableau made Townes think bus station waiting room in Hell. They stopped talking when he pushed the door open and filled the frame.

“No guns on hand, I suppose.”

“Naw,” Curly shook his head. “Cray keeps ‘em locked up when there’s a buncha coked up bitches around could get their hands on ‘em.”

Townes stepped in. He swung his arm wide, hard and fast, cuffing the smaller man in the ear with his open hand. Like an angry mother would do. The kid didn’t see it coming and went over sideways. He looked like a crumpled ball of paper as he quickly brought his arms and legs up to block another blow. Townes leaned down and pulled him back upright by the hair. He kept pulling until his wiry, little body was on its feet.

“I hate that word.”

Ginger and her friend snickered. Their hands never stopped moving, but their glazed eyes were pinned on Townes and the little man. The little one tried to avert his eyes but the big one grabbed him by the throat and held his head in place.

“Pay attention.”

Little Curly boy nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Snake.”

“No, it’s not.”

“What people call me.” Feeble stab at a sneer.

“Bet people call you lots of things. But you ain’t no snake. Real snakes are mean and dangerous, and you’re…not. What I want to know is your real name. What your mama called you back when she was changing your diapers. If she bothered, that is.”

“Francis.”

Townes laughed. Just a few seconds. “That’s a girl’s name.”

“Fuck you.”

Townes let go of that skinny throat and grabbed the kid’s wrist. He brought the knife up with his left hand and pressed the handle into Francis’ right. If they ever tried to lift prints off that handle, all they’d find were the kid’s.

“Here’s your chance to do it right. Fix how bad you fucked up two years ago. Can you be a snake, Francis?”

He just stared back at Townes, eyes glazed. It was hard to say how much of the glaze was dope, confusion or fear. Finally, he pushed Francis backward, sending him down onto the mattress.

“Get your boy’s hand wrapped up or he’s gonna bleed out.”

He wheeled out of the room to cross the parlor back to the stairway. Cray was standing in the middle of his path with a large, blood stained wad of paper towel wrapped around his hand. He was holding a Colt M45 in his left, but he didn’t have the strength to hold it steady. When he fired a round into the floor boards less than three feet from Townes’ shoes, Siren’s face appeared just at the edge of the doorway.

“Be right there,” Townes reassured her. His business here was concluded, except for the small complication of walking Siren down the stairs and out to his truck. He wasn’t worried about getting her that far anymore. It was the few thousand ways there were to turn the moment she got into his truck.

When he stepped up to Cray and reached for his left hand, the gun slipped easily from his fingers. He looked half relieved.

“Don’t take Siren. That’s just cold.”

Townes found himself unable to move in a moment of disbelief. He even started to laugh but a hard wave of derision trumped it. “If you ever needed killing, it wouldn’t be for what you did to me, but what you’ve done to her…for how you buried a girl like her in this noxious sludge you call a life.” He stopped talking and tried to exhale the ugliness rising back up inside him. “Just get that hand looked at,” he finally said, shoving past the pale, sweating Cray, but then he stopped and turned before he made it through the door. “By the way…if you decide to come after me…”

“Yeah. Right. I get it.”

“You’re a sociopath, Cray. And not the smart kind. That’s a bad thing. Especially for you.”

“Fuck it.”

Siren was waiting at the bottom of the stairs when he stepped into the hallway. She watched him come down and turned to walk ahead when he came within a couple of steps. She pushed the door open and wrapped herself up in the raincoat as she went barefoot down the wet, cement steps.

Still raining. No wind.

Townes kept his eye on the house as he opened and held the passenger door. Siren floated through the rain into the truck, pulling a wet flap of coat in after her. He shut the door and they looked at each other through the spattered window. His T shirt was already soaked through and his jeans weren’t far behind. Her face seemed different now that her body was covered – different through the rivulets running down the glass.

He knew nothing but a few tiny shards of her – like a puzzle you can see the shape of after laying out the first few pieces. He couldn’t look at her face and see the end of something soaked in blood and rage. The thought of unfinished business filtered into his mind. She quietly shook her head, as if he’d spoken it to her.

He spun away and spotted the nearest gutter vent. Removing the clip from the gun, he dropped them both into the swollen river of sludge running under the grate. Then he got into the truck, started up and drove off without a word or backward glance, leaving Siren to whatever space she was in.

He took the city streets slowly. No one said anything out loud. The sky gradually lightened, but steady rain muted the sunrise. Eventually, Townes got on the freeway and headed east.

By the time he reached flat desert, he got off the main road and pulled onto the scrub in the crotch of an intersection of two long, dead straight roads – one paved, the other dirt. He killed the engine and got out, feeling Siren’s sidelong gaze on him wherever he moved.

It felt good to be out of the truck. It wasn’t raining and the ground was bone dry. He didn’t remember driving out from under the storm, and realized there was a tremor in his joints. He walked to the back of the truck and grabbed the edge of the tailgate with both hands. A few beats later, Siren got out and joined him. She was holding the coat closed.

Townes’ hands felt steadier. There was a large trailer park about a half mile south on the paved road, then miles of arid scrub. Siren was a complete anomaly against the vast, lifeless backdrop, as if she were somehow that much more alive here. She could’ve been the only living thing in sight.

“S’okay you din’t kill nobody,” she said, settling beside him.

It was the first thing she’d had to say since they left Cray’s place. He’d asked her if there was anyplace she wanted him to take her, and all she’d said was wherever. Now she put her hands up on the tailgate like his. He looked at her knuckles, and the way the sleeves of his raincoat bunched along her arms.

“I know that in my head,” he told her. “But I think the idea is still catching up with the rest of me. You ever get angry at someone, Siren? Like hateful angry?”

“In yer blood like poison kinda angry? Guess so maybe.”

She was staring into the bed of the truck. He studied her profile. It was hard to imagine her face twisted up in the kind of anger they were talking about, but he knew her life had to be littered with the kinds of things that lay that kind of anger down on someone’s heart. He thought a moment to ask her about it, but just as quickly realized how pointless it would be.

“You gonna wanna fuck me sometime or other?” She could’ve been asking if he wanted a sandwich.

“No.” Shook his head. Tightened up his jaw a little.

“Don’cha like me? Seems like most guys wanna fuck me most of the time. Seems like ya oughta just for bein’ so nice n’ all.”

“I like you just fine, Siren. And in just about any other circumstance I’m sure I’d want to fuck you more than I’d want to fuck some other lady. It’s just your pussy isn’t like a greeting card, you know?”

“Din’t mean it that way. The greeting card way.” Her face screwed up into a thoughtful frown. “Ain’t cuz Cray been there first, izzit? Cuz he ain’t really been there all too much. All them drugs he likes kinda…ya know…keep him down. But he been there just the same. Din’t know if you’d think I was tainted…like my daddy use ta call it.”

Townes looked back at her face. She was still staring into the truck bed. He got the feeling there were a hundred things he could say to please her, and almost nothing that could hurt her.

“It’s not about who’s been inside your body, Siren. It’s about who lives inside it.”

“Ain’t a lotta people think like that.”

Truck bed, but her eyes moved halfway toward him and then back to the same spot as before.

“Did your daddy ever say you were tainted?”

“Naw. He just warned me about it all the time. Pointin’ at other girls I knew and sayin’ don’t be like them. Guess he’d say I’m like that now, though.”

“What do you say?”

“Don’t really know. Never thought it mattered that much. Don’t feel tainted, but enough people look at ya like you’re black and blue and pretty soon you’re gonna feel black and blue.”

“Do you feel black and blue?”

She let go of the tailgate and turned around to lean against it, pulling the sides of Townes’ raincoat open to expose everything but her arms and shoulders to the sun. She closed her eyes and lifted her face.

“Never felt the sun like this before,” she said, cruising past the question. “People can’t touch a body like this.”

“Like how?”

“Everywhere all at once.”

Her body was a slow rolling river of sinew, flesh and bone. There was a pudgy resilience about the jutting swell of her breasts that came off as impudent and demure at the same time. The shape of her pussy was round yet tapered. He would’ve thought it a delicate thing, but every instinct he had told him it had been pounded and left for dead in more ditches than he himself could ever survive.

“Siren?”

“Yuh huh?”

“Did you ever think being a woman is a fearsome thing?”

“No, sir.”

“T, remember?”

“Yes, sir, T. And no. Never imagined such a thing. But…I dunno…”

“Do me a favor, will you?”

“Guess I owe you that much.”

“No. You don’t owe me a thing. Just promise me you won’t keep using your pussy like a thank you note.”

“Sure. Guess so. I mean…hardly seems up to me most a the time.” She angled her head down and opened her eyes. “Seems like I don’t hardly get to fuck the ones I wanna.”

As they paused on the scrub, Townes felt a steadiness return to his hands. It seeped from there up his thick arms and all through the rest of his body. The longer they stood there, the more distance he felt stretching out between Cray and him. Nothing was moving, but everything was in motion.

“We’re gonna have to find you some clothes,” he finally said. She chuckled, and he looked a question at her.

“Just seems most’a the time people are tryin’a keep me naked.”

He chuckled in response. She chuckled again and then he chuckled back some more. Before long, it turned into the kind of laughing spasms that stretch out beyond the humor of whatever’s been said. It was the kind of moment they could as easily have turned to crying.

It had never occurred to Townes how fits of laughing or crying were all the same thing. It was as simple as water boiling over the side of a too full pot. Times in his life he’d fallen so hard to either laughter or sobbing were outnumbered by the fingers on one hand. He’d been given to neither since the night he crawled half alive out of a ditch in pouring rain. He realized from that moment to when he first crouched down in front of Siren he’d existed as nothing but an organism nurtured on the heaviest poisons of the human spirit.

Caught up in laughter, Siren’s face blossomed with light and openness he’d never imagined her capable of. She didn’t seem changed, but a completely different woman from the crumpled waif he’d found sitting in the corner on the floor. Her breasts quivered as she laughed, the rising desert sun drawing lines around them in the shape of inflated teardrops. Her thighs were slightly parted. Skin like cream and cinnamon.

She caught him looking and the laughter died away. The thought of existing either before or after the moment they were in was suddenly unimaginable. There was a river of longing pulsing through his veins. He wasn’t even sure what he was longing for, but Siren was the bud at the center of it all.

He reached out and touched her face. His hand was steady while something started spinning inside him. He said her name. The word soft but defined. He wanted to ask if she was feeling the spin, but the question sounded foolish in the silent rehearsal in his mind.

A heaviness that didn’t seem burdensome came into her chocolate eyes.

“Touch my pussy. Don’t say nothin’, please. Just do it.”

Everything was all about blood all over again. But another kind of blood. The kind that flows in continual circles. The kind that pushes you ahead, into your next breath.

His hand moved from her cheek down her neck. She was soft and feral. Fingertips gliding over collarbone and down to grasp her breast. Silk and flesh. Scent of her pussy disseminating in the open air. Grip, squeeze, live and die.

Siren. Nipple hard and mighty as starlight.

Fingers releasing. Palm sliding over her heart. A regiment of blood marching through the space of her existence. Random waif, how did you master this trick of being alive?

His hand slid downward over her ribs and hips, coming to rest over the teacup mound at the apex of her thighs. Her feet moved wider apart in the pale sand. His fingers slid against the furrow of her sex and found her lacquered with honey. He was alive through his fingertips, yet separate from them as they moved and slid against her flushed and swollen petals.

“Been like this a while,” she said. Half breathing. Half speaking. “Can’t see no other reason for it but you takin’ me on a walk downstairs. Tell me if it don’t feel like wakin’ up in the same place at the same time from the same bad dream.”

He moved in front of her, shielding her body from the deserted crossroad. Left arm went around her shoulders. Right kept on rubbing. Massaging. Light probes into her body as her thighs widened. Slick fingers smeared honey over the silken hollows framing her pussy.

“Put your hands under my shirt,” he told her. “Hold me like you would a man you’d love.”

“Yes, sir.”

Her fingers crossed his torso like sparks going off under his skin. She was upright against the truck and his arm around her, pulling her in. One large, rough finger slid inside, thumb searching for her clit. Swollen bud of woman flesh. No pearl but a diamond shining over lost and broken angels.

Another finger and her nails scored across the scars on his back. His cock was a raging pulse of heat and strain, but he pulled her in even tighter. Away from the truck. Her weight against his. He cradled her face to his chest while his fingers glided and pumped.

He whispered her name and she whimpered his initial. A tremor started rocking through her hips and he felt her teeth sink into his chest through his shirt. The harder she bit, the tighter he held her to him. She rocked her pussy against his driving fingers, and after a fit of shivering, her body tensed.

Her arms tightened around his trunk until it was hard to breathe. The shivers were all inside her now as his thumb and fingers ground hard and suddenly backed off when her jaw loosened out of the bite into mewling and gasps.

He held her fast while her breath evened out. His cock was still straining with heat while he willed his hand to stay calm between her wet thighs.

Moments later, his arm loosened from around her shoulders and she leaned back against the truck. He brought his hand up from between her legs and painted her supple lips with his coated fingers.

Then he kissed her. Long, deep and hard as he could remember doing anything.

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