“You stay here, River. Got it?”
Turning up the air-conditioner in the truck, I nodded and signed, Got it.
Slamming the driver’s side door, my pop and the prospect headed off into the woods, the first body bag of the four dead Mexicans being carried by them.
Waiting until they were all out of sight I jumped out of the truck, my feet making a crunching sound as they hit the dried grass.
Tipping my head back, I breathed deep. I loved being outdoors, loved being on the back of my pop’s bike, loved being anywhere away from people expecting me to talk.
Making my way toward the bed of the truck, I snapped a long spindly branch off a nearby cedar and began whacking the reeds around me just for something to do. Sending stiffs to the boatman could take hours—digging, lime, and cover-up—so I made my way toward the trees and set to searching for snakes in the high grass.
I don’t know how long I walked, but when I lifted my eyes, I found myself deep in the forest, the air around me completely still and me completely lost.
Shit. Pop’s instructions were as clear as day. “Stay here, River. Got it?” Hell, he was gonna kill me if he had to come looking. The rules for dumping stiffs were simple: dig, dump, dodge.
Searching around me, I spotted a rise and headed for higher ground. I intended to work my way back to the truck before my pop turned up and got pissed.
Using the trunks of the trees to hold on to, I climbed the steep hill and, when I reached the top, began dusting the dried mud and bark scum from my jeans. When they were sorta clean, I scanned the horizon and frowned. About two hundred yards ahead was the biggest goddamn fence. My mouth dropped at its size; it was higher and wider than anything I’d ever seen before. It reminded me of prison, with curls of razor wire wrapped ’round the top wall. I looked all ’round me, but there were no signs of life, nothing to be seen behind the fence but more forest. I wondered what it was. We were deep in the boonies, miles and miles from the outskirts of Austin, miles and miles from anywhere. Folks don’t really come this far outta town… they know better. My pop said only bad things happen ’round these parts: death, disappearances, violence and other unexplainable things. It’d been that way for years; that’s why my pop chose it as a drop site.
Now completely distracted from finding a route back to the truck, I began wading through tall grasses toward the edge of the fence. Curious excitement buzzed through me. I loved to go exploring, but then I jumped out of my skin when, suddenly, something behind the fence caught my eye.
Someone was there.
I froze, focusing my eyes on the outline of a tiny slim person, the small frame of a young chick dressed in a long gray dress, her hair pulled back in a funny style at the back of her head.
She looked ’bout my age. Maybe a couple ’a years younger?
Heart beating fast in my chest, I crept toward the chick, her tiny, frail-looking body drowning in the dark material of her dress as she curled herself in between the roots of a large tree. Her shoulders were shaking as she cried, her body shuddering with sobs, but not making a sound.
Dropping to my knees, I threaded my fingers through the links of the fence and stared. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t—couldn’t—speak to anyone but Kyler and Pop. Even then it weren’t often.
I closed my eyes, concentrating on trying to loosen up my throat, fighting to free the words that never wanted to come. A battle I always tried to fight but one I rarely won.
Dropping my mouth, I set to relaxing my face muscles when the tiny chick froze on the spot and her eyes locked on mine. I stumbled back, my fingers slipping back through the fence. She had huge, blue eyes rimmed with red marks. Her small hand moved to her face to wipe at her wet cheeks; her bottom lip quivered and her chest heaved hard.
From my new position, I could see her hair was as black as coal and her skin so pale. I’d never seen no one like her before. Then again, I didn’t know many kids my own age; no one did in club life. There was Kyler, of course, but he was my best friend, my club brother.
Suddenly, the chick panicked; her face blanched, she shot to her feet, and her head turned back toward the forest. I scrambled to the fence again at her movement, the metal screeching at the contact. The chick froze and looked back, gripping a branch as she watched me.
Who are you? I signed real fast.
The girl swallowed nervously and tilted her head. Cautiously, she edged forward in silence, curiosity etched on her tiny face. She was staring at my hands, watching me sign, her dark eyebrows pulled down real low.
The closer she got, the more my breath came short and I felt warm all over. Her jet-black hair was tied in a tight knot at the back of her head, covered by a weird white cloth. I’d never seen anyone dressed like her before. She looked so strange.
When she stopped ’bout two yards away, I sucked in a breath, squeezed my stomach muscles tight, and signed again. Who are you?
She didn’t speak, just stared at me blankly. Goddamn it! She didn’t understand ASL. Not many folks did. I could hear just fine, but I didn’t speak. Ky and Pop were the only folks who could translate for me, and right now I was on my own.
Sucking in another deep breath, I swallowed and tried really hard to work loose my throat. Closing my eyes, I thought through what I wanted to ask and, holding a slow, controlled exhale, I tried my damnedest to talk.
“Wh-wh-who a-are y-y-you?”
As I fell back in shock, my eyes widened. I’d never been able to do that before, speak to a total stranger. My hands fidgeted in excitement. I could talk to this chick! I could talk… that made her number three.
Driven by curiosity, the chick moved closer still. Only a few feet away, she slowly knelt on the forest floor, her head cocked to one side, just staring at me with a funny expression on her face.
Her big blue eyes never once moved away from me. I watched her slowly scan me from head to toe and then back again. I thought about what she must be seeing: my dark, messy hair, black T-shirt and jeans, heavy black boots, and leather cuffs on my wrists showing the Hangmen patch.
As her eyes met mine once more, her lips seemed to curve upward slightly into a small kinda smile. I crooked my finger in her direction, urging her to come closer.
She quickly turned, searching all ’round her. Seeing we were alone, she stood up—slowly, as before—and she inched forward toward me, the bottom of her long dress dirtying on a patch of muddy ground.
Now, as she stood before me, I couldn’t help but notice again how tiny she looked. I was tall, so she had to tilt her neck back to look up at me. As I pressed into the fence, my stomach churned. She looked so tired and her blue eyes winced in the corners as she shuffled toward me, like she was in pain.
Noticing she was uncomfortable, I pointed to the forest floor, indicating we should sit. She nodded her head, lowered her eyes and slowly, painfully, dropped to her knees.
She didn’t make a sound. Hoping for another miracle, I inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly. “Wh-what i-is this p-p-p-place? D-d-do you… l-l-live h-here?” I stuttered, occasionally pausing and thinking through my words as I struggled to push them out. A wave of excitement washed through my stomach… I was talking… again!
Her eyes focused on my mouth, but she still kept quiet. Her black eyebrows were pulled tight and her pink lips were pursed in concentration. I knew she was wondering why I talked funny; everyone always did. She would be wondering why I stuttered. I didn’t know. I just always had. Gave up trying to fix it years ago. I talked with my hands now. Didn’t like being laughed at for having a stammer… but she wasn’t laughing at me… not even a little bit. She just looked, well, confused.
As I glanced down in embarrassment, I noticed her hands were right next to her side of the fence, only inches from mine. Without thinking, I reached through and ran my finger across her knuckles. I just wanted to touch her, make sure she was real. Her skin looked so soft.
With a gasp, she snapped her hand back as if my touch were fire and she cradled it next to her chest.
“I-I-I w-won’t h-hurt y-you,” I croaked as quickly as I could force out, worried about the terror on her face… a face that was the same shape as a heart. I didn’t want her to be scared of me. My pop told me that folks needed to fear me, had to distrust me so I’d be safe. Most folks in my world, I knew, would see my signing as a weakness, so my pop told me I had to toughen up and use my fists instead of words. Now folks just thought I was dangerous. Like Ky said, I was born to be feared: the Hangmen Mute.
But right now I wished more than anything that I could trade all that in just to know how to talk right. I didn’t want her to be afraid of me. Not the chick with the blue eyes—blue eyes the color of a wolf’s.
Sitting back in a trance, her wolf eyes drew me in. She looked like a ghost—no, a goddess—like the paintings on the wall at compound. Like the goddess Persephone, wife of Hades, the underworld God the Hangmen wore on their patch.
With a flicker of movement, the chick brought her shaking hand forward to the fence; the ice-blue and white flecks in her irises never broke my gaze, the whites bright as she stared at me.
I stayed completely still. The girl was like a frightened rabbit and I didn’t want to spook her. I’d never seen no one like her, my hands were getting damp and my heart was beating real fast.
Nervously, she ran a fingertip along my hand, a pink blush bursting on her cheeks. I fought to breathe, the too-fast thumping of my heart making me lose focus.
Bending my index finger, I hooked it softly ’round hers and pressed my forehead against the hard mesh wire.
The girl pursed her slightly parted pink lips and wiggled the tip of her nose. I stopped breathing… She was beautiful.
TOUR INFO FOR
IT AIN’T ME, BABE BY TILLIE COLE
It Ain’t Me, Babe Blurb
Sinning never felt so good…
A fortuitous encounter.
A meeting that should never have happened.
Many years ago, two children from completely different worlds forged a connection, a fateful connection, an unbreakable bond that would change their lives forever…
Salome knows only one way to live—under Prophet David’s rule. In the commune she calls home, Salome knows nothing of life beyond her strict faith, nor of life beyond the Fence—the fence that cages her, keeps her trapped in an endless cycle of misery. A life she believes she is destined to always lead, until a horrific event sets her free.
Fleeing the absolute safety of all she has ever known, Salome is thrust into the world outside, a frightening world full of uncertainty and sin; into the protective arms of a person she believed she would never see again.
River ‘Styx’ Nash knows one thing for certain in life—he was born and bred to wear a cut. Raised in a turbulent world of sex, Harleys, and drugs, Styx, unexpectedly has the heavy burden of the Hades Hangmen gavel thrust upon him, and all at the ripe old age of twenty-six—much to his rivals’ delight.
Haunted by a crushing speech impediment, Styx quickly learns to deal with his haters. Powerful fists, an iron jaw and the skillful use of his treasured German blade has earned him a fearsome reputation as a man not to be messed with in the shadowy world of outlaw MC’s. A reputation that successfully keeps most people far, far away.
Styx has one rule in life—never let anyone get too close. It’s a plan that he has stuck to for years, that is, until a young woman is found injured on his lot… a woman who looks uncannily familiar, a woman who clearly does not belong in his world, yet a woman he feels reluctant to let go…
Dark Contemporary Romance/New Adult Novel. Contains sexual situations, violence, sensitive and taboo subjects, offensive language and mature topics. Recommended for age 18 years and up*
Tillie Cole is a Northern girl through and through. She originates from a place called Teesside on that little but awesomely sunny (okay I exaggerate) Isle called Great Britain. She was brought up surrounded by her English rose mother — a farmer’s daughter, her crazy Scottish father, a savagely sarcastic sister and a multitude of rescue animals and horses.
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