I was an ugly son of a bitch, I never doubted that. I’d been an ugly baby, repellent as a kid, and as an adult, I was uglier than sin and meaner than a snake. I was an attack dog in human form. I had a face that even a mother couldn’t love—mine sure as hell hadn’t. She let me know every damn minute of every cursed day that she couldn’t bear to look at me.“If you’d been hit in the face with a skillet, then run over a few times it wouldn’t make you look any worse—it mighta helped.” That was her on a good day. So when I say that I’m a son of a bitch, I mean that literally.
What does an ugly, skinny kid do? He makes sure he’s meaner than the biggest bully in the schoolyard. When he pulled a fist, I pulled a knife; if he pulled a knife, I pulled a gun. That last one finally got me sent to juvie. Best thing that could have happened to me: three square meals a day and my own room—damn near heaven.
I made sure that I stayed in juvie until I was 18 and legally allowed to make my own way in the world.
When I got out that last time, I had a ready-made business opportunity waiting for me: selling steroids to body builders in gyms. I’d gotten big while I was biding my time. All my free hours were spent turning my body into a machine. But I’d seen what ‘roid rage looked like and I was smart enough not to sample my own product more than a few times, but the gym rats who were my customers looked at my muscles and thought it was down to chemicals. Stupid fuckers couldn’t tell the difference.
I had dense muscle mass, but I was fast. I could zip in three jabs and an uppercut while my adversary wondered what freight train had just hit him. And maybe a dude who didn’t know me thought that my shattered cheekbone, broken nose and chipped teeth were because I wasn’t a good fighter: wrong. Each scar was a bet I’d won after the Prez put me up against four other MC gangbangers at a time. You could call it my party trick. The Prez even had a human ear hanging up in his office that I’d bitten off in one of the fights. Won him a chunk of change, too.
The day I patched in with the Jackals of southwest Colorado was the proudest of my life. Being with them was finally finding a home, if your home is a bunch of crazy mofos drunk off of their asses and high on life. My brothers were wild, wanting nothing more than a few dollars in their pockets and all out mayhem. Prez kept them on a tight leash, managing to screw some work out of them when he needed to. We ran the drug trade in the area and kept standards high. Our customers knew that our product was quality, and a reputation like that is worth having. We didn’t touch no people trafficking, and gun running is for suckers. The DEA knew about us for sure, but on the whole, they left us to keep the peace. We had more manpower and boots on the ground than they did.
So when the Wolverines MC out of Utah came at us, I was the one the Prez unleashed on them. We’d just had a showdown coupla miles out of town by Lake Nighthorse. I buried six of ‘em using my fists and a knife.
I smiled at the memory, then frowning when blood welled out from my split lip. I was also nursing a long slash down my forearm which was currently dripping onto the floor of Durango’s Emergency Room.
I watched, fascinated, as the blood pooled on the floor, darkening around the edges as it began to dry. Prez had been pissed that the Wolverines had gotten the jump on us while the club’s doc was out of town. Usually, Doc Medley fixed me up, or sometimes I did it myself, but I’m left handed and that was the arm that had been gashed with an axe. Even with a chunk of flesh hanging off of me, I’d grabbed that axe and left it in a Wolverine’s skull. But I’d been around enough hospitals to know the drill. My wound was an avulsion: a partial tearing away of skin and the tissue beneath. Kinda messy and hurt like a bitch. It needed internal as well as external stitches and some strong antibiotics.
The ER was crowded, pretty much standing room only, full of Friday night drunks, two teenage Utes from the nearby res who’d been sniffing gasoline and passed out in town, a heavily pregnant woman with four little kids hanging off her, an old lady with a broken hip from slipping on ice, and the usual leftover chunks of humanity who shoulda got better insurance for a private hospital.
I was pissed to be here waiting. The staff all avoided me and they were probably taking bets on who’d get the short straw and be landed with me—in other words, a doc who wasn’t scared shitless just by looking at me or…
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
A woman was staring at me, but even so, I looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking to. When I was certain that her words were directed at me, two thoughts crossed my mind: she was sexy as sin; and, what kind of dumb bitch wears sunglasses indoors at night?
I grunted, which could have meant anything but she took it as an affirmative.
She sat down carefully, tossing me a quick smile. It felt weird. Women crossed the street to avoid me, and the only pussy I could get had to be paid for. Even the Club whores had to be ordered by the Prez to go with me. So I was stunned when this woman turned to me and smiled.
“Sorry,” she said softly. “It was the only seat available, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you.”
I grunted again, mesmerized by her hands as she laid them carefully in her lap. The fingers were long and slim, the nails short and unpainted. Her skin looked soft, and I wondered what hands like that would feel on my body.
“Are you injured badly?” she asked.
What a fucking inane question—half my arm was hanging off.
“I can smell blood,” she added.
“What are you, some kind of fucking vampire?”
She laughed lightly, not the least offended. “Yes, but only on Fridays.”
“It is Friday,” I said stupidly.
“Oh dear, then you might be in danger from me,” she chuckled.
Was she crazy? She was a tiny little thing, less than half my body weight, and about as dangerous as a wet paper bag.
“You’ve got some balls, sweetheart,” I said, her ease in my presence squeezing a speck of respect out of me.
“I think you’ve got that the wrong way around,” she laughed. “You sound big.”
“I sound bi—?”
And then I understood. This chick was blind. It explained the sunglasses indoors and explained why she’d sat next to me. Hell, she probably didn’t even know that she was beautiful. Fate sure is a twisted bitch.
“Nope, five foot two and a hundred pounds,” I said, my voice sounding like I chewed on gravel and brushed what was left of my teeth with sand.
“Now I know you’re teasing me,” she said. “What kind of man does that to a blind woman?”
Damn if she wasn’t laughing at me.
“Can I ask why you’re here?”
“Why the fuck are you here?” I spat, my usual mode of speaking.
“Apart from being blind?” she said, raising one eyebrow.
“Uh, yeah. Apart from that.”
“I ran out of my asthma medication. I thought I had a spare inhaler, but it’s empty. And cats make me wheeze.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “So stay away from cats.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that—I have two: Angus and Flora—they’re Scottish cats.”
“You’re nuts, lady,” I grumbled.
“I’m blind and asthmatic and now you’re calling me crazy. That’s not very nice.”
She was still smiling, but I decided to disabuse her anyway.
“No, I’m not nice.”
“Yes, you are.”
I blinked, confused. “No, I’m not.”
“Jesus, what are you? Five?”
She giggled and the sound shot through me like water off a glacier, shocking me awake. Had a woman ever been so comfortable with me that they just sat and giggled? No drink, no drugs, no trying not to look at my face, just freaking giggling?
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “It’s so boring being in the ER again.”
“You come here a lot?”
“Isn’t that the kind of thing you’re supposed ask in bars?” she laughed. “But to answer your question, yes, I’m here a lot. I’m always bumping into things or tripping over flagstones, even though I use a cane. Or slipping on the ice—God, I hate January. What about you, is your second home in the ER, too?”
“Not usually, although I’ve seen a lot of medics over the years.”
“Are you in the military?”
“Something like that.”
“Why are you here tonight?”
“Got an axe in my arm.”
Her face was horrified. “Oh my God! Are you okay? No, of course you’re not okay, but they’re not rushing you into surgery either, so I guess it’s still attached. It is, isn’t it?”
I sighed heavily, but inside I was smiling. “Nope, I’ve got it in a suitcase on the floor next to me. I thought they might be able to staple it back on.”
“Why did you put it in a suitcase?”
I burst out laughing. “I tell you I’ve got my arm in a suitcase, and that’s your question?”
“It made you laugh,” she said, looking pleased with herself. “I’m Emily Evans.” She held out her hand then paused. “You’re supposed to shake hands and tell me your name now. Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
Reluctantly, I shook her hand, a tiny delicate thing in my massive paw. The comparison was almost obscene. But it was so normal. I’d never had much normal.
“Why won’t you tell me your name? You must have a name? What do your parents call you?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Well, what do your friends call you?”
“What does it matter?”
She smiled. “If we’re going to be friends, I should know your name.”
“We’re not friends.”
“Not yet. But we’re in the ER on a Friday night so we’ve got plenty of time to get to know each other.”
“For all you know I could be an axe murderer,” I said, which was kinda too close to home, but I was completely exasperated by Little Miss Sunshine.
“Oh, I don’t think so. An axe murderer would tell me that he sold encyclopedias door to door, then invite himself over to my apartment. Besides, you’re nice: I can tell.”
“You’re dead wrong, lady.”
“It’s Emily, I told you.”
This time I spoke sincerely. “I’m not nice, Emily. You should steer clear of a guy like me.”
“But if I do that, how will we ever be friends?”
“You’re not listening to me!”
“Oh, you’re wrong there,” she said, suddenly serious. “I’ve been blind since I was four years old—my hearing is acute to compensate. But more than that, I’ve had to learn to listen to what people aren’t saying. You’d be surprised, but there are people out there who’d take advantage of a blind woman.”
I felt my anger rising. What kind of bastard would do that? This woman, Emily, she was the kind of person that a man should protect. But I knew that there were a lot of sick predators out there who preyed on the weak. I didn’t like that she would be the target of anyone like that.
“I know, shocker, right?” she went on. “But I know that you wouldn’t do anything like that. I practice putting people into three groups: first, users and takers—that’s not you, by the way; second, lost sheep—that’s people who always end up being needy because they’re incapable of standing up for themselves; and third, there’s the rest of us—the almost good. That’s you and me.”
Her philosophy of life amused me and saddened me at the same time. I doubt she’d ever met anyone truly evil, someone who didn’t have a soul. I had, and you could see the emptiness—the hole right through the middle of them where their humanity should be.
“Hey, Dog. Ain’t you been seen yet?”
I looked up to find T-Bone strolling towards me and cursed my luck. He might have been a brother but the guy was a raging asshole.
“Sure, but I was enjoying sitting here and dripping blood on the floor so I thought I’d stay a while.”
“I can see why,” he grinned, glancing at Emily. “Nice titties, sweet little mouth just made to suck a man dry.”
I felt Emily tense next to me.
“Leave her the fuck alone,” I growled, but T-Bone just grinned at me.
“Aw, fuck! She’s a blind chick!” he laughed. “I guess that’s why she ain’t running at the sight of yo’ ugly ass!”
I didn’t give him another warning, but hit him so hard with a right hook, that I heard his jaw pop out.
“Ow, muvverfugger!” he howled. “You’fe brogen m’ fuggin’ face.”
Prez prowled up behind us, reading the situation with one glance. “Get the fuck up, T-Bone. I sent you here to see if Dog was ready, not to join the line.”
“He hi’ me!” T-Bone protested.
“’Spect you had it coming. Now fuck off outta here.”
T-Bone skulked away, his angry look telling me that there was unfinished business between us. I didn’t care—I could take him any time, and I knew that I was more valuable to the Jackals than him.
Prez’s assessing gaze took in Emily sitting upright and pale next to me, her knuckles white in her lap.
“Dog, you call when you ready to ride. Me and T-Bone need to have a little hablar, you dig?”
“Sure, boss,” I muttered.
He gave Emily another long glance, then left as silently as he’d arrived.
I didn’t think she’d talk to me after that, but I was wrong.
“Those men are your friends?”
“They’re … people I work with.”
“I didn’t like the one called ‘T-Bone’.”
“Good call. I don’t like the motherf— I don’t like him either.”
“But the other one, the quiet one, he was scary.”
I glanced at her again, realizing that she hadn’t been wrong about her gift of sizing people up. Prez didn’t talk a lot, but when he did, you listened. Or the chances were you’d turn up dead. I figured T-Bone was heading that way. Fucker couldn’t keep his pie-hole shut.
“Are you … are you in a gang?”
I gave a quiet chuckle. “It’s a motorcycle club.”
She thought about that for a minute and I found myself missing her non-stop chatter.
“What do you ride?” she said at last. “A Harley?”
“No, a Norton. You’ve been watching too much TV,” I laughed, then stopped abruptly.
“Oh, don’t worry about saying things like that,” she said breezily. “People say it all the time, ‘I see what you mean’, or ‘watch what you’re doing’. It’s just a figure of speech—it doesn’t bother me.”
“How did I lose my sight?”
“The technical term is optic nerve hydroplasia. It means that there’s a deficiency of optic nerve fibers. Sometimes it’s brought on by a mother drinking during pregnancy. Since my mom plowed her car into a lamppost when she was five times over the limit a few months after I was born, I’d say that was a fair guess.”
“Shit. I’m sorry. That why you wear sunglasses?”
“No, it’s because I don’t like people staring at me.” Then she started laughing. “Sorry, I’m not making fun of you. Much. I wear sunglasses because the way I look freaks people out.”
“Fuck,” I said quietly. “I know what that feels like.”
I laughed harshly. “The way I look scares the fuck out of everyone.”
“Not me,” she smiled.
This woman. I had no clue how to talk to her. But damn if I didn’t like it.
“Anyhoo,” she continued, “it all worked out for the best, really. I was raised by my aunt and she’s amazing. You’ll love her when you meet her. Everyone loves Cassy.”
“Wait, what? Why am I meeting your aunt?”
“Oh, well, we live together, so when you pick me up for our date, you’ll meet her.”
“You’ve got some spunk, Emily, I’ll say that for you. But I never asked you out on no date.”
“But you were going to, I just saved you some time.”
Her smile faded slowly as I cleared my throat.
“I don’t date.”
“Do you mean you don’t date, or that you don’t date blind girls?”
“The first. I don’t date.”
“But why not? Apart from the fact that your friends are assholes?”
I laughed sadly. “Can’t argue with that. My friends are definitely assholes.”
“But you’re so nice,” she said.
“Back to that. No, I’m not.”
“Why do your friends call you ‘dog’?”
I sighed. “I’m the MC’s fixer, their attack dog. The name kinda stuck.”
Her mouth turned down. “But you’re so gentle. How can you be an attack dog? Can I touch you? I see best with my hands.”
I was so stunned that I didn’t react when she reached up to touch my face. Her hands were as soft as I’d imagined as she ran them across the scars on my cheeks, my broken nose, thick beard, shaved head and split lip. I winced slightly.
“Sorry,” she said quietly. “Does that hurt?”
Then her hands traveled down my chest, across my waist and back up to my one good arm.
“See, I was right about you,” she said. “You’re strong and gentle.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of a time when anyone, a woman, had touched me like that.
“What’s your real name?” she asked, nudging me gently.
“You don’t need to know,” I said gruffly.
“I’d like to. Well, anyway, you know mine. I’m in the phone book, by the way—Hillcrest Apartments.”
Just then a nurse with a clipboard came up her, glancing warily in my direction. “Emily Evans?”
“Yes!” she said brightly. “That’s me.”
The nurse took Emily’s elbow and I watched them walk away, an almost overwhelming need to follow them, to hear Emily’s voice again, which shocked the hell out of me.
I heard the nurse whisper to her. “Was that man bothering you?”
“The ugly one you were sitting next to.”
“Oh, you must be thinking of someone else,” she laughed. “He’s my new boyfriend, the handsomest man I’ve ever met.”
My mouth fell open, then tipped up into a huge smile.
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