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Chapter 10: Lie with Dogs, Rise with Fleas

Cold water is pooling under my back when I come to. I try to squirm away, but as I tip, I’m attacked with a face-full of slobber. I paw at Garm’s snout, pushing her off my chest, and roll out from under the truck, straight into the pouring rain.

It has to be the middle of the night; it’s pitch black outside and there’s no traffic for miles because of this freezing monsoon.

I’m about to crawl back under the truck and sulk when a booming voice shouts over the rumble of thunder, “Are you a goddamn dog, Cowboy?!”

I turn to face him, and am blinded by a beam of light.

“… I like dogs!” I shout back, and I can hear him laugh through the roaring water.

Without warning, I'm dragged through the darkness like a mutt. A door pulls open and I'm shoved inside. It slams behind me and suddenly the world hums with the sound of rain drumming on the roof, and I’m bathed in the soft, yellow glow of the truck’s dome lights. It's warm, dry, and smells fresh and muddy.

Sin hops in and slams his door, leaning back in his seat in a soaked black raincoat, wagging his flashlight at me.

“You are hard to predict,” he says with a sigh. Am I? I thought running from all of life’s problems was my M.O.

He must have been out in the rain for a while, because he throws the flashlight into a compartment in the dash and peels off his coat with an exhausted disgust. “How long were you under the damn trailer?” he wonders.

My jaw chatters as I try to speak. “A day, a week? Who keeps track of that shit?”

“Where else are you hurt?”

Hurt? Why would I be hurt? My mud-covered hands look fine and I’m soaked to the bone and shivering, but I’m not hurt.

“Your face is bleeding,” he says.

I touch my sore nose and start to tell him what happened, but I stop. How much of an explanation do I owe him? He’s just an asshole who took advantage of my need for help. He watched me be defiled by a monster, then egged me on when I knocked the guy out. Then he gets me twisted and tangled in some organ collecting butcher story that’s spreading across the Midwest like a disease. I don’t owe this guy anything.

Sin’s waiting for me to continue, but I feel highly exposed, stuck in this little glowing box amidst the black oblivion outside.

On the console between us is a brown canvas bag of medical supplies and a couple wet towels. How long was he looking for me?

I finally cave, because I always do. “I ran into a sign. The, uh, the Arkansas sign we passed about a half mile back.”

He starts snickering and hands me a damp towel to wipe my face. “Unpredictable,” he repeats. “Why would you head back north?”

“I wasn’t heading anywhere, I was lost. And why didn’t you leave?”

It’s not an unfair question, but he looks almost hurt that I asked.

“I wasn’t abandoning you. You were building another prison, so I let you out.”

The fact that he knows I'm plagued with mental prisons makes me sick. He shouldn't know any of this. Even my ex-wife didn't understand to what degree life bogs me down. When it gets overwhelming, I tend to build worlds within my head to cope. They help me rationalize the parts of life that feel out of my control, like when a man claiming to be my friend turns out to be a bastard with a disturbing idea about what constitutes good Samaritanism.

Some of the worlds I create were real to me, like I’m reliving past memories of places I'd never intended to return to. But others are what my overactive imagination fabricates to explain why people do what they do. That man gruffly brushing past you at the grocery store isn't a crotchety asshole. He's a tax paying American man with a wife and a home, who had spent the last two years of his life supporting his president and a war that he just lost both his sons to. That woman isn't a flake, dropping coins and ignoring your comments about the weather; she just got back from the doctor and what happened there is none of your goddamn business.

There are hidden parts of everyone's lives that stay locked away from the rest of us, but there are always ways in. You have to dive into yellowing eyes, unshaved cheeks, or maybe just a quivering tone of voice to find out how bad or how grim life can get.

When I’m near an emotional person, I tend to lose myself in their affectivity. When I inevitably can’t untangle my own feelings from theirs, I start building walls to protect myself. These cages I create, keep me from overreacting. If I didn't build them, I'd turn into a blubbering or trigger-happy fool. But those emotions that I’m forced to imprison, build up like a dark cloud inside me. I don’t often get to keep the good feelings in life, but I always retain the bad, despite how crippling it has become.

Something inside Sin can sense this. He hears more than just my stuttering words when I speak. He hears my pent-up sadness, growing fear, and the voices of a hundred people who have hurt me in just as many ways as I've hurt them.

After only a few brief, though intensely intimate meetings, I worry that Sin sees something disconcerting in me, and the attention he draws to it is as unwanted as it is unsettling.

There is no denying what he is – a monster with an odd tongue and an even odder palate – but I can’t deny what I am, either. I’m alone, bitter, and slowly coming unglued again, and somehow Sin can smell it.

As I sit here chewing my own instability, he twists in his seat to wrench off his wet, muddy clothes. He strips down to his briefs, unencumbered by embarrassment or the many other trivialities of life. He has no use or time for those things. They’re reserved for people like me, still bound to the earth with fetters forged of guilt and shame.

He tosses the bag and wet towels to the floor and crawls over the console to lay down on the elevated bed behind the seats.

“What about Garm?” I wonder. She’s still outside in the downpour.

“She hunts, too,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”

“But the road?”

He snickers because I sound like a nervous little girl, scared to leave her new puppy outside in a drizzle.

“She’s fast, Cowboy, don’t worry about her.”

He’s lying on his side, and I’m left peering over my shoulder at him, dripping in my seat and still shivering like a wet cat. I can’t go to bed and warm up with the gawking bystander who did nothing while I was attacked. It’s unconscionable, and my stomach churns at the thought.

Then, as though he can read my mind through my eyes, he says, “I stopped him.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means exactly what I said. Garm chased them both off. I wanted to see if you’d fight, and when you didn’t – or couldn’t – I sent her.”

What does this mean? He stopped him? He sent Garm?

I have always lived in denial about the atrocities of my life, pretending to be stronger than I am. But now my denial mocks me, saying it knew nothing happened, and that I was just being dramatic. My denial laughs and says, “See, you faggot? You just made it all up in your head because you’re a pervert.”

But I didn’t make it up.

It felt like it happened, or at least I thought it had.

I can still feel the cold gun on my cheek and that terror clutching my chest. “You didn’t even fight back,” says denial. “Maybe you were wishing for it. Maybe what you feel now is disappointment, you sick fuck. Because now you aren’t a victim, and you’ll never be a survivor. You’re just a coward with made-up stories about how badly the world treats you. Sin’s dog protects your dignity better than you can. Nothing happened that night, and you know it.”

A sickening relief floods me, but it’s short-lived as the churning in my gut intensifies. I don’t understand any of this. If Sin stopped him, does this mean I attacked that man for no reason? He hadn’t even stolen my wallet.

Sin sits up and clears his throat. “That’s not to say what happened in Boulder wasn’t justified.”

But that’s exactly what he’s saying. “Where’s your precious balance, Sin? We killed a man who had, according to you, done nothing to me. What balance did we restore in Boulder?”

“His intent was to hurt you. Your intent was to kill him. Neither of you succeeded.”

“But you succeeded. Are you exempt from your own rules now?”

“We should meet actions in kind,” he says.

“And what action was met in kind, I wonder?”

“He treated you like a piece of meat, so I treated him with the same respect you’d show a pig. Retributive justice, Cowboy.”

Retributive justice ... a piece of meat ... I’m suddenly detached, like my body has simply forgotten how to feel.

His eyes burrow into mine, blood-red despite the amber lights. "I know what you need," he say, but how could he? "You need to warm up. You're barely skin and bones."

What I need is to build a wall between us. I need to hide inside my head to escape the reaches of this tether he’s tied to me.

But I don’t. I can't. And a part of me thinks he knows that.

I’m wet and shaking and I have a choice to make. I can’t be a better man and walk away from this. I can’t run and hide, because I’m freezing and alone. I have to choose his warm skin over his cold blood because I’m scared, and lost, and I don’t know what else to do.

I can’t stomach looking at him, though, so I focus on my soaked clothes. I have to get them off my back; they’re too cold. My numb fingers fumble down the buttons on my shirt – his shirt – but I can’t get them undone. Since I’m not moving fast enough for his taste, Sin reaches around the seat to unbutton the shirt himself.

My body won’t even afford me a shred of self-respect, so my breath stutters shamefully as he exhales warm air across my neck. I avoid his eyes while he pulls his shirt from my jeans and helps me drop the rest of my wet clothes to the floor.

It’s humiliating to be disrobed like this, to have his pitch-black eyes scouring my skin as more and more is exposed, but his gaze doesn’t seem to linger on any spot for too long.

I thought I knew the difference between right and wrong. I thought if I just tried to be a decent person, that right and wrong would always be obvious. But that is not the case. There is no black and white. There’s just a formless gray mass hovering over my life.

He tugs my arm and I relent, crawling over the console and into the bed, and Sin flicks off the lights as we lay down, facing each other.

A heavy blanket is pulled up and over us both, and he tucks it under my back. It’s so warm and dark, and all I can hear is the plunking of rain on metal. It’s relaxing despite the storm above us and between us, but the tight quarters quickly become claustrophobic.

I squirm around, trying to get comfortable, and accidentally knee him in the thigh.

“Problem?” he asks.

“It feels like a coffin.”

“You’ll get used to it."

Despite having spent an hour searching for me in the freezing rain, his hand burns the shivering skin of my arm. That blistering hand drops from my elbow to paw at my hip, and I can feel those bottomless pits staring at me through the darkness. He’s only inches from my face, but I can barely see him, and I can feel more than just his fingers exploring me.

“Do you want me to apologize?” he asks.

“Are you capable of apologizing to humans?”

“You must think me a monster.”

“You’re speaking to me through the darkness. It’s not a hard leap to make.”

He snickers and his hand continues trailing up my gaunt ribs like he’s brushing the keys on a piano. “You’re starving yourself,” he says, and his voice strangely catches. “Whether you like it or not, you will eat tomorrow.”

“That’s a very bold statement.”

“It’s not a statement. It’s a fact. Why aren’t you eating?”

Though food rarely makes it to my mouth anymore, when it does, it turns to ash on my tongue. "I don’t want to eat ... or be eaten,” I clarify.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody, would be to not be used for anything,” he quotes, and his hand slides down the small of my back.

“That not the most poetic line of the book,” I say.

“But surely the most truthful.”

“Don’t use my most cherished possession against my own logic,” I say.

“I think Vonnegut would find humor in that.”

“Vonnegut finds humor in a lot of dark things, but there is nothing funny about this.”

I can hear the bastard snickering in the dark.

“Those with power laugh because there is no one to stop them," I scoff. "Life for the commoner is nothing but a lengthy joke."

“God must never stop laughing, then.”

“God is the greatest joke of them all.”

“We finally agree on something,” he says, and his hand wrenches me into his body.

“You’re proud below the navel,” I say, and he laughs again.

“You know you're kind of funny when you aren't insulting me.”

“Life for the commoner is nothing but a lengthy joke, remember?”

“You’re not a commoner; at least you were never meant to be,” he says, and those hot fingers find and trace the long scar that runs across my chest.

“I suppose I should feel honored to hear you say that.”

“I’m not above you, Cowboy.”

“And yet you hold the keys to the kingdom – literally in this case. You’re all-seeing and all-knowing, and I’m but a peasant shielded under your mighty wing.”

"I told you what I did, and how I tried to make amends. You deserved justice so I gave it to you."

"That's funny because justice isn't what it feels like to me."

"Then tell me what it feels like to you."

"It feels like I've had the rug ripped out from under me, and I have no idea why."

"You don't know why you feel that way?" he wonders.

"No – I don't know why you grabbed the rug and pulled."

I can practically hear him smiling. "I saw a loose thread, and I didn't want you to trip."

Bullshit. "You didn't want me to trip … so you pushed me instead. That's an odd way to protect someone."

"So you agree that I was protecting you."

"I agree that you …" Wait, no, I'm not agreeing to anything. "Don't twist this around to make yourself look like a hero."

"I wouldn't dream of it," he snickers.

I called this asshole sexy once. Last week was a simpler time. "You're toying with me now."

"Am I? I thought we were discussing your unfounded suspicions of me."

"Not unfounded. My suspicions are very very founded."

He inches back and says, “If you’re going to ridicule me, I’ll turn away.”

“I'm not ridiculing you and that's a terrible threat. Are you sure you want your back to me? I’m feeling a little proud myself, and I’m not particularly happy with you at the moment.”

He’s still snickering as his hand slides up to my neck to hold my cheek in his palm.

If I'm being honest though, I do feel a little proud, and not just because he's managed to coax my dick hard. Making him laugh feels like I’m breaking down a different kind of wall, one that he’s been erecting all his life.

His thumb slides across my mouth, and while I can’t see anything but black, I can feel heat approaching my face until his lips finally meet mine.

I now curse the rain on the roof because it’s drowning out the little moans he releases when he consumes my mouth. I want to hear him groan across my lips. I want to know that I can make this brute drop his guard and become as vulnerable as I always feel. Just realizing how much he wants me makes me feel powerful.

That preoccupation he has with teeth rears its head as he bites at my lips and chews my jaw, like he’s trying to see my face with his mouth. As he pants in my ear, my mind tumbles back through our last conversation, and I wonder whether I can rationalize a shred of hatred for this man anymore.

He almost makes me feel too good to hold a grudge, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. He makes me question my ability to hate a man who came to my aid in my hour of need. How could I possibly scorn a man who saw something inside of me worth protecting?

When his hands grip my ass and he wrenches my cock into his belly, that night in Boulder flickers through my mind. But it’s not the bloody knuckles, the fresh grave, or the tackle to the dirt that I recall, it’s this same feeling of his hands all over my body and his tongue tasting my neck that I remember in such vivid detail.

The fear and panic of that day are overwhelmed by the weight of satisfaction. Everything that day just felt good.

I’m not sure why I bothered to keep my boxers on, because he’d stripped off his own briefs before I’d even climbed into his bed. We both knew where this was headed as soon as he threw me back in the truck. He knows I’m too weak to run again, and his body is as lonely as mine.

He sits up and rolls me to my back as he climbs on top of me. With every scrape of my fingernails down his back, his teeth lock down on my neck, and I realize what he meant when he said that I basked. I did bask after we murdered someone together; but it wasn’t in the kill, it was in the glory of him.

There are people who bring nothing more to the table than the simple pleasantries of life. A neighbor handing you a beer at a picnic is nice. A coworker gifting you a doughnut for your birthday is nice. A spouse preparing a hot dinner for you after a grueling day is nice. 

Above and beyond that is this six-course meal who is dragging off my boxers and gnawing at my stomach as we speak. He goes beyond the simple pleasantries of niceness. He is, and gives to me, something more akin to the divine.

Despite my empty stomach, I don’t feel hungry when I have his body at my mercy. I am free to indulge in the salt of his sweat, the pungent smell of his skin, and the fullness of his broad shoulders as my hands explore his flesh. I would feel downright gluttonous from my consumption of him, if he wasn’t devouring me in turn.

That all-consuming tongue of his likes to take its sweet time as it explores my skin. He is a man of endless patience, coaxing exactly what he wants out of me and life, and he does so with the utmost finesse. He maintains a certain dignified presence, despite his gruff demeanor. The untrained eye wouldn’t see it, but when he is clothed, the cut and fabric of his shirts lay across his shoulders like they were a gift from Frigg herself. His truck is top-of-the-line and immaculate. Hell, even Garm is well-groomed.

He is a walking paradox, living on the road and off the land like an honest-to-God cowboy, but within the luxury of this aristocratic bubble. This real cowboy isn’t just a rogue, he’s a world traveler, a friend of the rich and famous, a man with a very particular palate and a taste for top-shelf martinis. He’s an enigma with all the world presented to him, and he’s picking my body to savor with his discerning tongue.

These are my overwhelming thoughts while my fingers clench a fistful of the grey-blond hair hovering over my waist. These thoughts are also, oddly enough, very similar to the overly emotional musings of a hormonal teenage girl who just got asked to prom by the most popular boy at school.

This incubus sucking on my cock may be a conniving bastard, but he’s not impossible to read. Believe me, I understand what happens to a person amidst the throes of passion.

He knows my weakness, and it’s only a matter of time before I find his. I may be getting a little attached, but in my defense, his tongue is lapping at the base of my dick, so I’m having a hard time not wanting to marry the son of a bitch.

But I am not an idiot, and I know how the human mind works. And if he thinks he’s pulling a fast one by apologizing to me with a blow job in the back of his truck, he can think again. If he assumes that I think our facetious nicknames will keep things fun and mysterious, he doesn’t know me at all. If he believes I will simply forgive and forget that he lied about following me and about my attacker, he is dead ass wrong. If he presumes that soft kisses and quoting Vonnegut will hasten my devotion to him, he is a goddamn fool. He expects me to bow to his animalistic rituals and dine with him tomorrow like a savage, but he’s about to be sorely disappointed by my appetite. I have been taken advantage of my whole life, and I can smell deceit a mile away.

But for now, in this coffin of my own making, I will take that greedy little tongue and that hot arrogant mouth of his and enjoy it while I can, because I know at any moment this fucker could turn on me like a rabid dog.