Seeing Red

What would you do if you lost five years of freedom? If everything you’d ever known was torn away from you, all because the one person you counted on to save you didn’t come through?

This became my reality when I was convicted at age nineteen for the murder of my father. Now twenty-five and eight months out of prison, I have nothing to my name except a crummy apartment and the horrifying memories that keep me locked in my past.

Then I meet Silo Winters, a man so much like me, yet so different that it drives me crazy. How could someone who went through the same hell I did in prison still look at life so cheerfully? I’ve never been able to let go of the past as effortlessly as he can, but when he’s with me I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I might have the strength to try.

Seeing Red is a slow-burn, grumpy/sunshine story of two ex-convicts helping each other find their footing–and so much more–in life after years in lockup. The story was originally published in 2013 and has had sections rewritten, but remains largely the same.

CONTENT WARNING: This books contains mentions of past sexual assault.

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Book Themes:

- Hurt / Comfort

- Grumpy/Sunshine

- Prisons / Convicts

- Tragic past

- Moderate steam

Excerpt:

The Flower District was named for what many men lost there—that moment when the lily white of a pure man’s soul turned red with his first taste of carnal lust. This was not my case, however. I’d lost the purity of having an untouched body years ago, and to a man I didn’t even love—or want.

I sat in the district’s most renowned bar, Divano Messia. I could practically feel patrons’ gazes cruising over me, but I paid them no mind. I felt bad for the first guy who’d offer to buy me a drink, because I was that one-in-a-million man who wasn’t looking to get laid in a place meant for people looking to get laid. I just wanted to be left alone to drink.

Despite this, I let my gaze wander. I hadn’t gotten any in more than eight months, so at the very least I let myself have some eye candy. Those times in prison didn’t count.

If I wanted, I could have one of these men on my arm in an hour’s time, and at one point in my life I would have been thrilled to have the opportunity. Now the very idea made my gut go sour. Cut-and-dried sex felt too frank, too impersonal. Too similar to an emotionless, get in get out romp with my ex-cellmate. I simply wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t, and I hadn’t been able to since my first day of freedom eight months ago.

Besides, I didn’t have the money to woo a guy by buying him a drink or anything like that even if I wanted to. All I had in my wallet today was a twenty, enough for my drink at most, and, if I was lucky, a taxi ride home.

I looked down at my reflection in the bar top and sneered. The twenty wasn’t even mine. I hadn’t been able to find work since I’d gotten out of the doghouse, and I despised that the money I did have I was leeching off my sister. I had been for eight months for rent, food, and now alcohol. But as much as I hated being out on the town using my sister’s money, I desperately needed the booze. If I penned through another to-be-ignored job application sober, I knew I’d blow a gasket.

Thus I ordered the driest cocktail Messia served—a Stinger. It hurt my throat to swallow it, but I sucked up the burn and smacked my lips. It wouldn’t get me drunk, but twenty bucks worth of booze wouldn’t anyway, so at least I could take my mind off all the shit going on in my life by scalding my tongue.

When I grimaced at my second sip of the cocktail, a man a few seats away from me laughed. I looked up at him, but he wasn’t looking back. I wondered if his laughter had even been directed at me as I profiled his average build and cleanly shaven skull. What most attracted my gaze to him were his ice-blue eyes. I only caught a glimpse of them when he turned to look behind him, but they were astounding. A pale winter-blue, almost stark white, just like icicles reflecting the color of the sky. I could almost smell the clean air and feel the frigid chill of winter when I saw them.

Realizing I was staring, I lowered my gaze. Then I caught sight of an array of black bars on the underside of the man’s wrist. A barcode… I peered back up at his shaven skull and then his face, and that was when he looked at me and smiled.

Now, it could have just been a meaningless tattoo. I’d heard of teens getting barcode tats just so they could scan themselves at stores. He could’ve been inked just for shits and giggles, but I didn’t think so. The way he hid his tattoo from me when he caught me staring, his hair, the seemingly pained look in his eyes when he’d folded his arms…his ink was personal. Too personal to have been done for kicks. After all, lots of guys who’d been in prison got tats of their prisoner ID. I knew—I was one of them. Only I didn’t do it to make myself look like some badass, or to brand myself as a rebellious stray lamb. I did it to remind myself that no matter how rough life got, I’d been through worse. Much, much worse…

“Silo Winters.” The tattooed man called across the bar. “That’s my name. Yours?”

“Red…” A large part of me didn’t want to talk to him, because I knew what he was after. A larger part of me realized from the ink on his wrist that he might have been through the same type of hell I had been in prison, and that he, like me, could possibly want a shoulder to lean on to get away from it all. But I wasn’t about to kid myself. This was the Flower District’s most popular gay bar, after all.

“Red, like the crayon color?” He rose from his seat and took the one next to me instead.

“I guess.” I sipped my drink again and cringed.

“Why drink it if you don’t like it?” Silo set his elbow on the bar and his chin atop his upturned palm.

“Because I want to.” I drank again, noticing the way he kept eying my cocktail.

“Care to offer me one?” He grinned at me stupidly, with his lips crooked and his eyes squeezed shut.

And though I kind of found it cute, I shook my head and said, “No.”

That quieted him for a minute. Then:

“Or you could just take me home as we can skip the formalities?”

Talk about coming on too strong. “Sorry, I’m not looking for anything like that.” I promptly asked the bartender for my bill, and then for my change when I handed him my twenty.

“Worried I’ll rob you, or something?” Silo stared at me as I rose from my seat, a pleading look in his bluish-white eyes that felt more and more misplaced the longer I held his gaze.

“Sorry.” I set an extra few dollars on the bar after I received my change, feeling those icicle eyes burning into my back as I stood up to head out the door.

“Hey wait, sugar.”

Against my better judgment, I turned back to face Silo. “What?”

“I’m not offended by a rejection.” He laughed. “Stay. Drink. That’s why you came, isn’t it?”

I narrowed my eyes. He was right. Besides, I’d only finished half my cocktail. “Fine…” I slowly took my seat again.

“So what’s got ya sucking down a throat-stinging drink like that, sweetheart?” Silo asked.

I thought he’d move on to other prospects, so when Silo continued talking to me, my confusion had me taking a moment to find an answer to his question.

“Life,” I grumbled.

“Hah! I feel that.” He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled an exasperated sigh.

I still wasn’t sure why he wanted to sit with me and talk. After all, I couldn’t give him the night of fun that he wanted. But the moment I saw him, his beautiful icicle-blue eyes had captured me. They demanded my attention every time I looked at him. And when I felt them on my back as I’d turned to leave the bar earlier, I sensed them looking beyond the surface of my skin and down into my core. That was one of the reasons I’d sat back down at the bar. That, and my insatiable curiosity about the barcode tattoo on the underside of his wrist. Mostly, though, it was the look of quiet understanding in Silo’s eyes when I caught him staring at my similarly tattooed wrist.

And then before I knew it, we’d been talking for hours, mostly about things that had no meaning, like our favorite bars in the Flower District. Silo was a huge flirt and hit on me more often than not, but nothing serious. He always laughed when he dropped some cheesy line or batted his eyelashes, almost as if he were emphasizing that it was all a joke. Despite this he still occasionally fished for me to invite him back to my place, regardless of how I shut him down each time. Yet he continued to sit beside me and carry on our conversation after each rejection, seemingly unfazed.

“So, Crayon…” Silo tapped the side of my martini glass with a terribly chewed nail. The ping echoed around the bar, lost in the conversations of other men. “Do you come here often? I’ve never really seen you around.”

I shook my head. “No.”

Silo grinned and settled his cheek against the palm of his hand. “I see.”

I could see the barcode tattooed on the underside of his wrist again with the way he was sitting, and my curiosity flared up once more.

Normally I would in no way bring up prison, because if I did the conversation was bound to route back to me and what I’d done to get locked up. Normally I avoided the topic like the plague, but here I was with a man who might have gone through that very same hell—and all I wanted to talk about since I’d met him was prison, because for the first time in eight months I’d found someone whose gaze didn’t develop that cautious glare when it passed over the barcode inked into my wrist. And just knowing someone like that existed made my soul cry out to him as a fellow comrade-in-arms. If I was wrong about it all—about him and his past being just like me and mine—then oh well. I would take that chance, because eight months of having no one to talk to who understood was driving me crazy. If I did turn out to be wrong about him, then he’d become just another stranger judging me silently with his pale, wintery gaze.

So as casually as I could, trying to show Silo I wouldn’t care no matter how he answered, I asked, “So I’ve noticed you’ve got a barcode tat. Shits and giggles, or have ya done time?” while tapping my ink.

“You finally asked, huh? I wondered who would ask first.” Silo chuckled as he raised his head and looked at my face. He shucked off his leather jacket and pointed to a fleshy red burn on the right side of his neck.

“Three years at Wende Correctional Facility in the town of Alden.” Silo craned his neck as if to give me a better view. “Trespassing, with a side of fourth-degree arson. Apparently I’m dumb enough to intentionally light an oil tanker on fire right in front of my own face.”

I scratched my wrist. “You didn’t?”

“Fucking tank fell off the truck and was apparently leaking oil. Driver started the vehicle, and then…” Silo clenched his fist in front of my face and then stretched his fingers wide. “Boom. Luckily it was a small tank, but there I was, a twenty-three year-old nitwit proving the size of my balls to a couple of drunk college buddies. We’d hopped the fence into an old truck yard owned by my friend’s dad. He was pissed at his old man for something—can’t even remember what now—so we were gonna spray paint some of the trucks owned by his dad’s company. I was pretty lit that night, and I volunteered to do the first one. The trespassing I deserved, but arson…” He shook his head and sighed. “They convicted me on the cigarette I’d thrown to the ground minutes before the tank just rolled off the truck and started a fire. I’d tossed the stupid thing right next to the truck’s tire, and of course there were no witnesses to it being an accident. My college friends bailed when the tank on the truck rolled free, afraid of getting caught. Not one of them went to bat for me. Bullshit. I just got out a month ago.” Silo held up his hand and ordered a Cosmo when he saw that the bartender was within earshot. “At least the driver lived.”

The bar master exchanged a nod with Silo, turning to find his mixer. When Silo received his drink he sipped it daintily, his anger seeming to have already cooled. “Ah, that’s good. I missed this place.”

“Amen to that.” I held up my drink in a hypothetical toast.

Silo sipped his cocktail with a finesse that matched the catlike grace with which he handled the glass. As he brought the glass away from his lips, he smiled sadly at his tattoo. “You have one too, huh?” He gestured at my similarly placed ink. “What do you think possesses us to remind ourselves of the shit we went through in there?”

I laughed, merely because I was happy to understand what he meant. “That it only gets better?” I snorted. “Or worse.”

Silo snorted in turn. “I’m not sure it could get worse. I was beaten in prison, fucked in prison, hell, I even got stabbed with a sharpened pen cap once just for sitting at the wrong table in the cafeteria.”

His nonchalant admission of all that hit me so suddenly that my mouth went dry.

“Christ.” I swallowed to wet my throat. Unable to think of anything else to say, I simply apologized and lied and told him I couldn’t imagine what most of that was like. I even spun a convincing excuse about how most of the inmates left me alone, probably because being six foot four and broad shouldered intimidated them. And I hated myself more and more for lying as every word rolled off my tongue. I finally met someone I knew wouldn’t judge me for what I went through and I still felt the need to play it tough. To act like none of it affected me.

So when Silo’s cheeks dimpled as his lips turned up at the corners and he said, “Your height is what attracted me to you first. I’d climb you like a tree if you let me,” I felt sick. “You’re very attractive,” he continued after draining the remainder of his Cosmo with a satisfied smack of his lips. “Tall, clean cut, and you’ve got this whole grizzled cowboy look going on with that jacket and the collared button-down shirt. Ticks all my boxes. Though if I’m being honest, you could stand to switch up your body wash. You smell like my Grandma’s house. I half expected you to pull out a purse and offer me a hard caramel candy when I first came up to you.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended, but I felt mostly awestruck as Silo went from talking about being shanked with a pen cap to criticizing my body wash in the span of a minute. Slowly the guilt I felt for lying to him about prison morphed into jealousy. He seemed to be able to brush what happened to him off so easily, and when I could finally get over being stunned by this, I realized he was still rambling on about my scent.

“It’s stale,” he was saying. “I think something earthy would suit you. Something with eucalyptus, maybe, or—”

“It’s not the soap I use.” I cut him off, afraid he might burst if he didn’t stop to take a breath. “It’s the water in my apartment. It’s poor quality and you’re lucky if you can get it hot.” I folded my arms, suddenly self conscious.

“I understand that. I’m probably in no better state.” Silo ran a hand over his closely shaven skull. “I’ve been sleeping in a friend’s… Well, he really doesn’t want to have much to do with me after the whole prison thing, so a kind-of friend’s car for the past two days. He works here, so that’s why I’m here.”

I tried hard to keep pity from showing on my face. It made sense to me now why Silo had been unusually persistent when he’d started flirting with me. He had nowhere to go, another feeling I knew all too well.

Silo seemed to notice the realization I’d come to and dropped his gaze. He shuffled in his seat like he couldn’t get comfortable and began picking at dry patches of skin around his fingernails.

“So you have a place of your own?” he asked, voice barely a whisper.

“An apartment, yeah. My sister was kind enough to find one for me. She’s paying my way until I get a job. It’s not that great, but it’s something.”

“When’d you get out?” Silo finally settled in his seat and brought his gaze up from the bar top, but he still refused to look at me.

“About eight months ago.” I spat out a short laugh. “I probably have more important things to be doing than going out to bars, but endless job rejections have put me in a foul mood of late. I needed Messia’s renowned cocktails to raise my spirits.”

“Yeah, this place has some damn good bartenders. One of them apparently won an award or some shit a few years ago for an original mix. But…” He began fidgeting again. “I’ll make you a deal. You get to fuck me, I get to stay with you.” He rubbed the back of his neck and turned away. “Sorry, that sounded bad. It’s just that this friend of mine doesn’t want me around anymore. I’ll make good on that deal too, swear.”

I almost laughed, but then I saw the hard iron stare Silo was shooting at me. He’s serious! “What, are you upgrading from a criminal to a whore?”

Silo snorted. “Some upgrade. Take it or leave it, man.”

“Hah! I barely know you enough to screw you, which is one thing, but to let you stay in my apartment?”

“Just for a little while?” Silo begged.

“Do you… normally plead with people for a place to stay?” I tried not to sound like I was looking down on him. Honestly I wasn’t, but anyone would agree that his methods weren’t the greatest. But for some reason I hadn’t seen him approach any other men like he had me, which wouldn’t have bothered me except he hadn’t simply let me leave the bar when I’d rejected him earlier. And when he answered my question, I realized why.

“Only my so-called friends, and even then they only offer me their cars in fear that I’ll torch their houses.” Silo sighed sadly, and I could tell he was on the brink of accepting defeat. It was what he said next that broke me. “I figured you’d understand my case better than them, though.”

I did. Lord, I did.

I’d stressed endlessly over what I’d do and where I’d go after prison. If not for my sister’s charity, I’d probably be in Silo’s very situation. The difference was I didn’t have any friends who’d let me stay with them after what I’d done, even in their cars. Instead I would’ve been left to the streets.

It was with that thought in mind that I warily asked, “What about your family?”

“I’d rather sleep in a stranger’s bed than beg my parents for a place to stay again. My father was very clear throughout my sentence about how welcome I am back home. If I have to hear ‘take responsibility for your own mess’ one more time, I might explode. He doesn’t see I’m fucking trying. He doesn’t know how hard it is to get back on your feet after what we went through.”

But I did. Intimately.

Silo and I were strangers and both ex-cons. We had nothing between us save a few words and some cocktails. We had no reason for trusting each other or each other’s words. But none of that mattered, because we had both chosen to neither judge nor fear a fellow soldier despite his misconduct.

What the hell, Silo could crash with me for a few days. What was the difference between taking him home for sex or just to help him out, anyway? Either way, I was letting a stranger into my apartment. Plenty of people did the same, especially in the Flower District. Besides, Silo’s company would be nice, and I didn’t own anything worth stealing. No money, no expensive furniture or trinkets, nothing. My bed would probably burn as well as any, but I bought Silo’s story about the fire being an accident. And anyway, I doubted Silo was so eager to rejoin his cellmate.

But my main reason for allowing Silo to crash with me was based on one important thing: he hadn’t asked me what I’d gone to prison for, even though I’d asked him. If he had, if he had learned my story, he probably wouldn’t have asked to stay with me.

“Fine.” I stood from my seat again. “But you’re not a criminal anymore, and you’re not a whore.”

Silo looked at me, puzzled. “So?”

“So you’re not going to repay me using your body.”

“Oh… so what do you want? I obviously have little money.”

 

It was simple, really. “Don’t burn down my house.”

(excerpt from Seeing Red ; Chapter One)