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Chapter 21: I am a Victim

There’s a familiarity to the smell of the fabric wadded by my face when I open my eyes. It’s dusty and damp, like a mildewy basement, and I’m briefly flooded with the anxiety of being late for school. I sit up, dropping the quilt from my face, and glance around the room barely lit by the small lamp on the nightstand.

I don’t remember crawling into my old bed, and waking up in this room, which has remained untouched for a decade, is surreal. I have to pause and take a moment to wonder whether my pathetic life thus far hasn’t just been a horrible dream.

When sensation slowly returns to my body, and a draft hits my bare skin, I realize I’ve been stripped of my bile- and pus-soaked clothes and tucked into bed like a child. Should I feel ashamed of this or not?

Nothing remains in my head but a clearing fog – no words, no thoughts, and the back of my scalp feels bruised and tender. When I reach up, I grip a fistful of blood-crusted hair, and my head echoes with the boom of the shed.

My face is swollen and hot from crying, and I can barely see through my puffy eyes. It’s making the world seem smaller than normal. Of course, I’m also an adult looking across the whitewashed walls of a child’s bedroom. I’m a giant now, and I’m looking back in time at a room that once sheltered a much more innocent me.

When my feet touch the wooden floor, everything rushes back to me like a nightmare that’s been waiting in the wings. His bloated body flashes through my head, then the smashed glass, his purple fingers, the flies, and that horrific, putrid smell. For a second, I think I smell it again, and I cover my mouth, gagging, but it’s not the smell of a rotting body.  

I take a deep breath and think – it smells hot, and I almost panic, thinking it’s a smoldering wire in these old walls, but it can’t be; instead, it’s sweeter like toasted nuts or fresh bread.

I rub my face and debate wandering down the hall to the kitchen to find out, but I take a moment to collect myself. This bedroom used to be my sanctuary. I spent every waking moment in here – reading, writing, and doing schoolwork. I remember the day my father and I finished building my desk. He wanted to paint it, but I was too excited to wait, so there it sits, still unfinished and splintering in the corner, and now covered in a layer of dust with a stained waterline halfway up its legs.

I don’t want to hate him; I never have, and what I’m feeling now doesn’t seem like grief or remorse. It feels like an emptiness from my heart to my stomach. It’s a gaping hole, and I can’t tell if it's because my father is gone, or because my guilt has disappeared now that I’m no longer making him suffer.

Grief is a sickening feeling that balls up in your gut and takes forever to work its way out of your body. It never goes away entirely, though one day, you stop having to tell yourself to breathe. After a while, you realize you’ve stopped crying every hour, and that realization will probably make you hysterical. And then the next day, you might just smile a real smile. You’ll feel bad about it, but you’ll move through that guilt, too. These baby steps take days, weeks, years to accomplish, but no one ever talks about them. I watched students go through them – widows at my old school, and I’ve felt this agony myself. They’re almost as taboo as what Butcher does in his spare time. You don’t talk about grief with your family and friends any more than you talk about your kill count with strangers.

I never knew my mother, so the grief I felt from losing her didn’t seem justifiable. I saw and felt my father’s pain, though. He hardly ate and never slept. It was a very real pain that I watched ebb and flow with the seasons or with the hour, and it compounded my own self-loathing because I chastised myself for not missing her enough. I could never miss her the way my dad could.

When I was old enough to feel and understand my father’s loneliness, I would ask about her, but he’d hold up his hand and close his eyes, stopping me from even saying her name. He never wanted words about her to float between the walls of our home. I think he was afraid of feeling that twinge of hope that she might just hear her name and respond.

I didn’t want to forget her, because according to my father’s brief, drunken ramblings, she was greater than the heavens and the earth combined. She had a chair at the table that never moved. I didn’t dare use it to rummage through the higher cupboards. I feared the wrath he’d bring down on me for disturbing the dead.

The kitchen was mom’s room because in there hung our only picture of her which still remains permanently affixed to the wall – she has dark hair, and her and my dad are standing behind a big white cake.

My mother had also owned a small collection of tea spoons she’d found over the years, and they remain wrapped, laid to rest inside a tin, and stowed in a cupboard over the fridge. They’re sterling silver with roses etched in the handles, and as rough as life got during the war, my dad refused to pawn them. Selling the treasures of the dead was a sure fire way to bring the devil’s wrath to your door. He called it grave robbing, though she was buried a mile away in a plot that took me two months to find on my own.

One of her possessions, though, didn’t stay in the kitchen, but I think technically it was mine. She’d written home thirty-six years ago to tell her mother she was expecting, and received as a reply a package containing Le Petit Prince. It still sits on my bookshelf, having been scoured through over a thousand times but never once read. I wanted to take it with me when I left for college so I could eventually translate it, but my father wouldn’t allow it, and I couldn’t fight him. It didn’t seem important enough to wage a war right before I was about to leave him forever. After all, I’d never even met my mom, but he’d gotten the chance to fall in love with her.

That book was one reason I came home; I wanted to ask if I could have it now. It’s still on my shelf, dusty and unopened, the sun-bleached cover now faded with time. I found an English copy when I worked between semesters at a bookstore in D.C. and I devoured it like it contained the words of God.

I don’t know what I was expecting. I probably thought it would make me feel close to her, like if I could just read the same words she had, that it would be like traveling through time and I might catch a glimpse of her in the book or within myself. But that’s not what happened. I think some of the story’s magic had been lost in translation.

Butcher must’ve turned off the light in the shed, because when I peel pack the curtain, the back yard is dull and black. My heart is eternally grateful to not be looking out at that mess.

Despite my lack of attire, I open the cracked door and lean into the hallway. That warm, nutty smell is more intense out here and it’s mingling with a sweet scent of cooked ham. I slowly step down the hall and into the kitchen, shielding my eyes from the light hanging over the metal table.

Butcher’s humming to himself as he works at the counter, whisking something in an old ceramic bowl. The kitchen’s been cleaned and the table’s set with plates and utensils like we’re waiting for the Queen of Sheba. No one ever set the table in this house – not even on Sunday. Hell, most of the time we never even put the food back in the cupboards; we just ate around the edges when the surface became too cluttered with dirty dishes, peanut butter jars, and tinned corn.

He finally peers over his shoulder, scanning my body in a way that makes me briefly debate if I should cover my boxer-clad crotch or my exposed nipples. I opt for neither when he looks away. “It’s not our normal fare, but it’ll do,” he says.

“What’re you doing?”

“Making eggs Benedict,” he says, returning his attention to the bowl. “I don’t often get the use of a kitchen; thought I’d entertain myself while you slept.”

“My father had the ingredients for eggs Benedict?” I scoff. “We never even had milk.”

“Still don’t,” he snickers, wiping his hands on a towel. “But this isn’t a complicated dish.” He peeks into the oven before pulling out a metal sheet of English muffins from inside it like a goddamn television chef.

“The oven still works?” I scoff, and Butcher’s hand wags a so-so. “I can’t believe you made those.” It truly is unbelievable.

“I said it’s not complicated,” he repeats.

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief, but I’m in no state to question his crazy antics anymore. “But what time is it?”

“Two thirty,” he tells me.

In the morning?! No wonder I feel like shit. And why the hell is he cooking in the middle of the night?

He abandons whatever he was working on and turns around, leans on the counter and studies me. I’m about to plop into my dad’s old dining chair, but I stop – it hasn’t been that long, and he might still be trying to find his way over the veil – so I avoid that desecration and fall into my old chair with a huff.

“How do you feel?” he suddenly asks.

I can’t bring myself to look at his face, so I stare at the pearlized buttons running down his shirt. Where does he find these bizarre clothes? “How do I feel?” I repeat. He asks me this a lot. “I feel like I wish I hadn’t woken up, and I’m sorry I ever came home. Regret and I are very intimate at this point.”

“Would you have rather not known? Lived in ignorance?”


“Life for the ignorant man is far from blissful,” he says, and truer words have never been spoken. An ignorant man lives in constant frustration. A well-educated man just lives in constant disgust, but he’s rarely frustrated. “What do you make of your regretful homecoming then?”

“Well, I feel like a failure for not stopping him, and I’ll never get the answers I needed to hear.”

“You’re stuck with unanswerable questions,” he says.

“And why now?” I scoff. “Why only days before I came home? Why’d he do it now, after waiting thirty-seven years?”

“More unanswerable questions, Hopper.”

I take a deep breath and finally look up at him. His eyes are amber again, which is unexpected. I was imagining annoyed, black wells. “Why can’t I cope with life? I feel lucid right now, but I also feel like I could crumble at any moment. I feel unstable, and it’s not normal.”

“Normalcy is overrated.”

“Says the man who isn’t plagued by demons,” I say, but I immediately regret it. He has his own bullshit to deal with.

“Oh, they plague me,” he chuckles, crossing his arms, “We’re just friendly now.”

“Me and mine aren’t really on speaking terms,” I say, and I find his laugh and smile oddly comforting.

“Maybe you should be,” he says.

“I’m not willing to listen to their shit any more than I’m willing to listen to yours.”

He snickers and turns back to his task at the counter. “Will you eat?”

My belly grumbles at the thought, and I have to admit, I’ve never been in my own kitchen when it smelled so much like a real home. I nod, and he serves me a steaming plate of eggs Benedict.

“Hot eggs,” he says with a smile, and sits in my dad’s chair. “And they’re a hell of a lot better than the shit they serve in diners.”

“I guarantee they’re a hell of a lot better than any shit that’s ever graced this table,” I scoff. “Cereal, bologna, tomato soup for a decade, and the rationing – it didn’t seem bad at the time, but now –,” I trail off with a grimace. “Once a week, I’d come home from school and he’d have a stack of cans on the counter and a loaf of bread waiting for me,” I say, shaking my head at the memory. “My neighbor up the road would take pity on me and give me food from her garden in the summer. Dad and I lived on beans, rice, and her scraps until the war was over,” I snicker. “But I guess everybody did.”

I look up at him and he’s staring at me, knife and fork in hand, the corner of his mouth painfully cocked like he’s trying to smile, but he’s lost somewhere in thought. His eyes, though, are right here with me. “I’m sorry,” I say, “Ignore everything that comes out of my damn mouth. I lived in paradise. We had food, and were safe. That’s more than I could say for some of the other kids I grew up with.”

“A fool’s paradise is a wise man’s hell, Hopper. No one lived in paradise during the war,” he says, cutting into his egg. He takes a bite and nods, mulling it over his tongue. “Eat, Hopper, or you might go apeshit again.”

I can’t stop staring at him as he eats. I do feel bad about being so casual with the realities of my life. I don’t know Butcher’s reality, and I act like I’m alive in spite of my dad. It’s childish and disrespectful to the horrors Butcher’s witnessed growing up in the middle of a firestorm.

The truth is that my father always came back to me. Sometimes he was late, or the day bled into the night and maybe the next but he did come home. He may have been drunk, or had a split lip, or was yelling about assholes stealing his last nickel, but he was here. And when I came to clean him up and prop him in his chair, he didn’t slap me around just because I walked into the room like my friend’s dads did. Now, he never helped me with my homework, and he may not have kept a full kitchen cupboard, but who did?

What I do remember, is that he didn’t ask me once for money from the cigar-box under my bed, even though he knew it was there and was often desperate. I offered sometimes, and he took it, but he never stole a penny from my “get the hell out of Louisiana” fund.

Sometimes this type of love trickles down through people. There’s a point at which you can’t help that tug of compassion. It keeps abandoned babies fed, roofs over children, and water running through the pipes of a home that doesn’t have the means to pay a plumber. Sometimes compassion is obvious – charities like to exploit this – but other times, love is simply looking the other way, or pretending not to hear, or ignoring your own growling belly. My father loved my mother so much that he’d do these things for her son in spite of himself, and I wanted to love her so much that I would do the same for him.

I remember so much, even though I don’t want to. When not traumatized, the human mind tends to push away the good memories so we can focus more clearly on the bad. I know it’s for the survival of the species – so we don’t repeat the shit that’s painful or dangerous – but it’s unfair to be inundated with memories of a life that may not have been as bad as we remember. It feels like our brains are lying to us because they live in such fear of dying that they’ve become addicted to pain and suffering.

If I concentrate I can still see him bringing home a bicycle after work. It was rusty as hell, but we painted it blue. And I can remember helping him at the dock one day during the summer. His face kept scanning the boats and the buildings, searching for someone or something the whole time he worked. I was confused until he finally saw a man – someone he used to work with. The man had come back to visit family and brought my dad an unbroken, peach-colored, paper fig shell that he found on a beach in Florida. It was in a brown bag and my dad handed it to me, thanked him, and they both left for The Hateful Snake.

There’s a reason paper is in that shell’s name. It’s a very delicate shell, and I was elated to have a perfect specimen for my collection. I ran it straight to my neighbor lady, and I gushed about how immaculate it was, while she made us both cheese sandwiches to celebrate. If I focus, I can remember it like it happened yesterday. I can smell her old lady perfume – peppermint and moth balls – and I remember how light and airy the shell felt, like it was made of nothing.

As a kid I only saw a summer day wasted working at the dock, and then that shell – it was a new toy, a treasure to show off on my windowsill. As an adult, I now see my dad talking about me to the other mechanics. I see him listening to me blather about treasure hunting while I did my homework. I see him taking note of what else I was looking for while I was picking up bottles at the beach. Why does hindsight have to be so goddamn clear? It creates more pain than you felt at the time, just so you can enjoy a brand new agony decades later.

That shell looks dark in my head now, like someone turned down the lights. It was peach with red streaks, and I feel like I want to see it again; but I can’t. It’s drifting out of view like it’s floating off into a black sea. It’s too dark to see anything now. There’s just a white moon, black water, and dark grey sand in my mind, and my body feels like I’ve been dropped in ice water.

A warmth suddenly spreads across my jaw as my thoughts settle back to earth. A hand is brushing my sweaty cheek, and a thumb creeps up my face, sliding under my glasses to gently open my eye. I don’t remember closing my eyes. Two black wells are staring at me now, and he inhales a deep breath, which makes me do the same.

“You still with me, Hop?” he whispers.

I’m with him.

I’m here.

I wonder what happened to that shell.

His palm tastes like saltwater when it grazes my mouth, and he tugs open my other eye.

“Can you tell me your n–” He stops. I don’t want him to stop.

“Do you know where you are, Cowboy?”

A hand swipes my forehead, brushing back my hair. It feels good. I like it when he touches my hair. I wish he touched my hair more often.

“Rocket, what time it is?”

“Two-thirty,” I sigh.

He snickers, and his hand runs down my neck and pats my shoulder. “Atta boy,” he whispers. “Come on back, son.” His voice is thin and delicate, like a teacup. “You want a drink? Some coffee?” he asks.

Do I want a teacup? “Coffee?” I mumble. Is that what I want? I blink, and my hand is hot, wrapped around a teacup filled with black water. Pink and yellow roses dance around the cup and the lip is trimmed in gold like a Christmas tree. “This is mom’s,” I say, but I was trying to only think that.

“It’s French,”  he says, “Mid-1800s. She had good taste in china.”

I look up, and those wells are just slits now. He’s biting his lip, too, and I don't know why, but he does it all the time. He bit it in the lake when he called me Ophelia. He bites it when he comes inside me. I think he bites it when I come, too … when his mouth isn’t full. I like it when his mouth is full. I wish he’d do more of that.

His voice is soft and breathy, and his words stretch between us like taffy. “There’s no milk,” he says, “but I found sugar. I know you take it black, Hop, but I wanted to offer anyway.”

He’s right; I drink it black. I’ve had to since I was little. “No more milk or sugar,” I sigh, and my head’s shaking. When I started drinking coffee as a kid, I used to load it up with milk and sugar before school. When I was seven, my dad said no more; if I wanted coffee it had to be black. He thought it would stop me from drinking it at all, but I grew to like it that way – just one more memory to cling to.

Butcher’s coffee has sugar in it, though. I guess his folks never cared.

“Drink it,” he says, so I lift it to my lips.

It’s hot, and doesn’t taste like the weak piss water my dad always made. “It’s good,” I say, and I stare at the gold-rimmed teacup as I set it back over my plate. I wasn’t allowed to look at her china growing up.

“Look at me,” he orders. I peer up and blink away the cloud in front of my eyes. “Where are you?”

His voice is as sharp as his suspicious eye slits. I sit up in my chair and clear my throat so it doesn’t crack and make me look even crazier than I feel. “Where the hell does it look like? I’m in my kitchen,” I snap. “We, uh, never used her china. Dad only let me look at it a couple times.”

I blink away the black fog, but now my head’s killing me and the gash on the back of my scalp is on fire. I never realized how often I wipe my sweaty forehead on my shirt until I’m not wearing one. Butcher grabs a towel from the counter and offers it to me, so I wipe the sweat from my face and neck.

“I’m hot all the sudden,” I say. I feel strangely lethargic, and my heart's racing. “I think I’m just – I think it’s shock.”

He barely nods and continues studying me like a doctor again; I feel like I’m losing it, but the room is slowly coming back into focus. I can smell the warm ham in the air and the heat from the oven on my bare back.

“You need to eat,” he says. “Slowly.”

My belly’s empty and my eggs are probably cold by now, but as the throbbing in my head subsides, I finally feel calm enough to try a taste. I cut off a bite and shove it in my mouth with a nervous grin, hoping to dissipate the tension building around me.

I shouldn’t hiss with delight because it seems inppropriate, but when those creamy, lemony eggs and crispy ham hit my tongue, I can’t suppress it. In my dad’s filthy, dank kitchen, this cocksucker can pull a meal out of his ass that would make Julia Child weep.

“You approve,” he says.

I nod as I shove more into my face like a wild animal. “Yeah … I approve,” I mumble, like that should excuse my gluttonous behavior. I’ve inhaled both my eggs before Butcher’s even taken his second bite. There’s no point in even using a fork, so I lean back in my chair and grab another warm English muffin off the counter. I use it to mop the hollandaise off my plate and poke it all into my ravenous maw without wasting a drop. God damn, it’s that good.

“I can make more,” he says, and I glance up to meet his concerned gaze.

“I just … uh, the stew is all I’ve had in days, and after everything –” It’s just an excuse, because what I really need is to fill that gaping hole in my gut as fast as possible. I grab the teacup and pour the whole thing down my throat in a single gulp; I need more.

Butcher casually swaps his full cup and plate with mine and sits there, staring, waiting for me to accept his offer. Should I refuse? Is he fattening me up again? I’ll eat this shit if he’s not going to. I have no shame in this moment.

His eyes are locked on mine and I give up as I start shoveling it down my throat – manners be damned. The only decent food I’ve consumed in the last month, I slaughtered myself on the side of the road, and I’m not sure I want to call that decent.

“Who would’ve thought your appetite was hiding here,” he snickers and heads back to the counter to replace the breakfast I basically stole out of his mouth.

“You know … uh, my dad–,” I say, and my voice cracks. I take a second to breathe, swallow my food, and manage to continue, “My dad would be shocked to see someone else cooking in here. That was always my job. I’m surprised you found any food in the fridge, honestly. I, uh … I thought he’d be surviving completely on whiskey and smokes by now.”

I stifle a sob as reality hits me in the face and tear off my glasses, letting them clatter to the table, cradling my eyes in an attempt to hold myself together. I thought I was fine. I thought I could ignore the gnawing in my chest. I thought I could remember the good times, and for a few minutes just be eating eggs. I thought I could just enjoy a breakfast that was made for me at my own kitchen table and talk to someone who actually wants to listen. For a moment, my house smelled like a home instead of a diesel-covered corpse. For a second, my dad was out front changing the oil in his bike, and I almost suggested that Butch follow me outside to see the boat in the shed.

“I can’t handle any of this,” I choke out. “I can’t even call the cops to do it for me.” Then it all washes over me like a monsoon – the mugger’s gun shoved in my cheek, my temple being cracked into my truck door, the shadow’s knife slicing across my palm, my father breaking a promise he’d made by plastering his brain all over the wall of the shed … and Butcher – I don’t know what his game is, but it can’t end well – I know it won’t.

I shove my plate away and lay my head on the table, exhaustion seeping from every pore. Up on the wall hangs that photo of my mom – still as perfect as the day I left. Her beautiful, creamy white face and that maple syrup hair flickers in front of my eyes and then vanishes.

My body goes limp and I’m sliding out of my chair. I’m caught as the chair tips and I hear it topple backward. The ground rushes up to my back, and a hand lowers my head to the floor.

I’m numb and surrounded by a white light, so I lay there like a dead fish, waiting for the world to return to me rather than go looking for it myself. I’m not particularly interested in finding it anyway.

When that blinding light fades, I’m staring up at coils of yellow flypaper and Butcher’s upside down face.

“You’re on the floor,” he says, when my ears stop ringing.

“You noticed.”

“Back to bed, I think,” he says with a grin, and holds out his hand.

Stellar idea. I just downed a cup of coffee and cracked my head on the floor. I should try to sleep it all off and just ignore that fact that my father’s rotting corpse is out back. My eyes are already bleary, though, and I feel like I’ve literally hit the bottom of the barrel. Why not go for broke and forget reality exists at all?

Butcher is, as much as I hate to say it, right. Nothing I attempt to do right now is going to change anything, and my belly’s finally full of food that I don’t want to throw up. A few more hours of sleep would probably do me some good. I take his hand and he hoists me to my feet.

Butcher follows as I stumble down the hall and crash into my door like a drunkard. For a moment, after I’d climbed into my bed, he seemed intent on leaving me alone in my room. He’d set down a glass of water next to my bed, nodded goodnight, and headed for the door. When I didn’t reciprocate his temporary goodbye, he stopped in the doorway and waited.

I find it interesting, the liberties Butcher does and does not take. One minute he seems crudely pushy – invading my booth at a diner and calling me twitchy, or demanding that we “get to know each other” in a filthy motel room – and the next minute he’s cold and aloof, like he’s just met me and doesn’t yet know what to think of my unpredictable temperament. It’s confusing, and I don’t know what to make of him, either.

What I do know, however, is that I don’t want him to leave. I can’t say that though, not to his face – my lips won’t move – but he somehow knows what my pained stare means, and his hand falls from the doorknob.

I don’t know what’s changed about either of us. I’m still as touchy as I ever was, and he’s the same asshole he’s been since we met, but his voice has seemed a little less gruff, and he hasn’t hassled me since I left him and Garm in the warehouse lot. Apparently the man can feel compassion toward someone in pain – unless this is all just a ploy, or a unique form of pity to him.

When he strips to practically nothing and lies behind me, it doesn’t feel like pity. It feels warm and gentle, like he’s holding one of my mother’s French teacups. My instinct is to object to this tender affection. I don’t want him thinking I’m weak and delicate, capable of shattering at the slightest drop. But instead of being ungrateful for the company, I focus and enjoy his hand, which seems to gravitate to my gaunt ribs whenever we’re close enough to touch. My ego will have to find something else to worry about, because human contact is currently winning out over pride.

He’s not particularly delicate with my body, anyway. In fact, he seems to lavish it with attention – both gentle and painful. So maybe he does see me as a teacup – just not fragile, but instead worthy of his obscure, sophisticated taste.

I didn’t invite him to trail his nose up my neck or to press his lips into my shoulder, but that’s what he does. I’m grateful, because truthfully, I think it’s what I want and need right now. When his arm crosses my chest and he grips the side of my neck, I no longer feel lost, but rather like I’m being kept and anchored in this place with him.  

I want to forget my life and be dropped into his deep, dark well. I’m not afraid of the darkness in there; there are no murky, lifeless eyes staring back at me. It feels warm and familiar in there, and I know he’s with me.

He brushes back my hair and cranes over my neck to kiss my jaw, and it’s an intense closeness that I need to feel more of, so I roll over and into his chest. His sigh against the side of my face is of strained relief. It’s like he’s terrified of how he or I will react to such closeness. We’ve not really touched like this except as we’ve fallen asleep after some sordid tryst. It feels too close, too much, or too intimate an act.

There is, however, a painful camaraderie that we do share – both in desperate need of something that the other might just provide. It makes me wonder what exactly happened to make him the creature he’s become, so lonely in his touch, and yet brutal.

In the woods behind the Boulder motel, he was raw and feral, tearing the guts from a dead man like an animal. But only an hour later, his fingers, much like now, were barely grazing my skin as he consumed my lips.

What makes him bring human flesh to his mouth with the same fervor that draws my tongue to his neck? I guess it’s the same compulsion for us both – a morbid curiosity, followed by an intense desire to feel satiated.

His bare belly presses into mine, and the warmth and pressure has me forgetting where we are and why we’re here. His tongue in my mouth makes me hope I’m already asleep, surrounded by a world devoid of the pains found only in the physical realm. But you can’t suppress pain without suppressing pleasure, and I’m quickly reminded of this when his hand finds its way down the back of my boxers. That’s a pain I’m almost willing to feel again just to bring him pleasure.

I want to feel him grope my ass and grind himself into me as we both drift off to sleep, even though my heart and my head are still somewhat suspended in that dark fog. His tongue licks up my sweaty neck as his fingers drag through my bloody hair, and he presses on the gash on the back of my skull. Yes, it’s still there – a painful reminder of the putrid shed that I’m trying so hard to forget.  

He bites my lip as he pulls away to sit up and kneel on the bed. “Lay on your chest,” he says.

I shake my head. “I’m too sore.”

He’s insistent though, and twists my shoulder out from under me until I’m flat on my stomach. I don’t appreciate his disregard for my refusal, so I glare up at him from over my shoulder. “I said no.”

He wrenches off my boxers anyway, and I can feel his rough beard across the small of my back as he trails his lips up my spine. “I just want to touch you,” he breathes across my skin, “Nothing more.”

I close my eyes and try to relax into the pillow while his fingertips linger on my hips. He could bite me. He could pin me down and break my neck in this position. He could tear off a chunk of flesh and let me bleed out on the mattress – but he doesn’t. He just tugs the rest of our clothes off and drops them to the floor, returning to my back with a renewed vigor now that he has nothing impeding the reach of his fingers or tongue.

That weight of his body pressing me into the bed sends me back to the woods, crushed against the ground when I felt my first moral fiber snapping. There was something thrilling about the way he took charge then – much like now – giving me the option to do as I wished under those grisly circumstances.

I’m not really a follower of men, nor a leader of them. I am a collaborator, looking for someone to work beside, not for. Butcher watched me kill a man, and I did the same; he watched me defile a body with a knife in the same vein as his gutting of the mugger. He looked into my eyes moments after I’d tasted my first premeditated kill, and he was aroused by it. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the same in Boulder.

I’m enjoying the way he makes me feel – protected though leery, welcomed though suspect. He touches me, and my attention diverts from the horrors of life to the heat of the moment and his body. He makes me forget, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

The hand snaking under my waist and the teeth scraping over my shoulder have to be more important than whatever tomorrow plans to bring, because I cannot face death when I feel as dead inside as I already do. What gives me hope that I will regain my strength and move on is that when he breathes across my back, I feel alive again.

There’s an intensity brought to the senses after being exposed to death. A sensitivity that heightens your awareness. I felt it in Boulder after we iced down a sack of human organs. Afterward, all I wanted to do was feel Sin’s heart beating in his chest, because the one in the tub would never beat again. I felt it in the back of the truck when I painted Hero’s face with my own blood, because I’d just exsanguinated a shadow onto the thirsty forest floor.

It’s an overwhelming desire to be reminded that life still exists, despite whatever darkness has fallen over you. And now, having looked upon my father – my own flesh and blood – bloated and cold, seeping into the ground outside, all I want to feel is the pulse of Butcher’s neck and the air from his lungs that keeps encouraging me to thrive with every exhale.

He does want to touch me. So badly, in fact, that his hands seem overwhelmed by my bruised and haggard body. I don’t understand his intense draw to my skin, but he paws down my ribs and kisses the flesh barely stretched over my boney spine, savoring every inch of me. His palm playfully grips my ass as he chews on whatever flesh he can tug from my shoulders. But then he lays himself on my back, kneeing apart my thighs in the process.

I want to trust him, but I’m not sure he wants to be trusted; he’s an enigma, after all. It would be a total lapse in judgment to be so eager to drop my guard when I’m this exposed, even with my faithful partner in crime.

“I said no,” I repeat, but that doesn’t stop him.

He reaches under my stomach and pulls my hips up into him as he chew on my ear. “Do you plan to fight me, son?”

“If you make me. There’s a shotgun in this room, and a knife about twelve inches from my hand.”

He snickers and drops my stomach back to the bed. “Not anymore.”

I lunge for the switchblade under the mattress – no luck – it’s gone.

“You nervous?” he wonders.

“Getting there." I slowly retract my hand and realize he’s about as trusting as I am, the snake. He searched my goddamn room while I was asleep.

“If you don’t trust me at your back, then turn over.”

Exposing my cock to him seems more dangerous than exposing my ass. While I’m trying to decide which scenario would be less painful, he yanks up my arm, drapes it around his neck, and drops to the bed beside me. His hand pulls my chest back into him.

“You’re skittish,” he snickers.

“You disarmed me.”

“I did,” he says with a nod. At least I know I’m not crazy for being nervous. “Why would you reach for a weapon?”

“You threatened me.” He cocks his head, clearly disagreeing with me. “What were you doing then?”

“Touching you, just as I said.”

I don’t believe him. That wasn’t touching. That was intentionally intrusive and hostile.

He inches closer until our knees are entwined, and carefully tucks my hair behind my ear. He’s gazing into my eyes when he gently kisses my cheek. “Is this more to your liking?” he says with a grin. “Does the sad boy need coddled?”

This son of a bitch. I grit my teeth, and his eyes burrow into mine like a rat. He’s waiting for my disgusted scoff, or my temper to flare, so he can be right. To him I’m just a twitchy, touchy, little boy getting doted on with my favorite meal, the comfort of his warm hands, and my childhood bed.

I reach up and palm his cheek, pushing his sweaty hair off his brow. He’s relishing his own cockiness, his eyes still probing mine, so I give him a peck on the lips. “The sad boy needs coddled about as much as the desperate cannibal needs a friend,” I say.

He bites his lip through a sneer, and I can feel the fiery indignation radiating off him. I know the knife’s not under the mattress, but I can’t stop my eyes from flicking to the edge of the bed as he cuts me with his stare.

“It’s not there,” he says. “But I bet you wish it were now.”

I huff out a scoff and smile. “You sure can dish it out,” I say, “But boy, you can’t handle a taste, can you?”

If looks could kill, he’d have sliced me wide open by now – spilling my bowels all over the bed. I can feel his fingernails pierce my hip the longer our eyes stay locked together. But I continue in spite of myself, “So tell me, Butch, just how desperate are you? I don’t trust you – hell, I don’t even like you – and yet you want me in the worst possible way. Seems pretty pathetic.”

I’ve never seen a man’s jaw clench so tight that his teeth look like they’re about to shatter. If it wasn’t for his constant goading, I might actually feel bad for him. He is lonely and desperate, but he’s also a big boy, and he certainly likes to make his bed in odd places – like in my childhood room while I’m trying to come to terms with a whole host of grief-stricken realities.

This is not a time for games. This is not an appropriate place or situation to initiate a power struggle with me. If he’s going to start shit, I will gladly finish it.

“If I walk away from you, Sad Boy, you’ll be missing a few pieces,” he says, and I hiss as his grip cuts into my hip. “When that happens, and which pieces, are up to you. But if I were you, I’d hold that pretty little tongue of yours, or I’ll do it for you right now.”

I shake my head and swallow back the sharp pain piercing my leg. He’s bluffing. “Is that supposed to ease my nervousness, Butcher? Still reeks of desperation to me.”

He chews his tongue and snickers, “You said no more lies. I’m honoring that.”

“Well, don’t I feel honored."

Now I want that goddamn knife just to cut a hole in the mounting tension between us. A stone monument has been erected over us and the rocks are piling on. Just when I think the crushing weight is about to collapse my lungs, I feel his grip on my hip begin to lessen. As each fingernail pulls from my warm, wet skin, another rock tumbles from the mountain. When his palm returns to pawing at my ribs, I can feel his hand slipping over my skin, now slicked with blood.

I glance at my red hip. “A loss of control?” I wonder.

“An admonition.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” I say. “But I will require that you return my knife to me.”

He smiles. “It’s already in the truck, Sad Boy.”

“Hopper,” I correct. “Perhaps we should finish this groping in the truck then.”

His grin widens and his hand smears over my hip to grab my ass. “A stellar idea, Hopper-Dropper,” he says, and he pulls me to his mouth for an unwanted, but tolerated kiss.


My chapter 21 notes.