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 is the cruel reality for Gabriel “Red” Thatcher, convicted at age nineteen for the murder of his father. Now twenty-five and eight months out of prison, Red has nothing to his name and no one to help him through the horrifying memories of his past.
Then he meets Silo Winters, a man so much like him yet so different that it drives Red crazy. How could someone who went through the same trauma he did in prison still look at life so cheerfully? And though Silo tries to show Red that life after hardship isn’t bleak and meaningless, Red finds it difficult after all he’s been through to let anyone in.
- Hurt / Comfort
- Prisons / Convicts
- Tragic past
- Moderate steam
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 I at least let myself have some eye candy. Those times in prison didn’t count. I didn’t exactly find the idea of being forced against some concrete wall by a man I hardly knew a good time. If I wanted, I could have one of these men on my arm in an hour’s time, but because of the past, because of prison, I didn’t. I would never take a one-night stand—that was the promise I’d made to myself eight months ago on my first day outside my prison cell, my first day of freedom.
Besides, I didn’t have much money to buy a guy a drink. All I had in my wallet today was a twenty, enough for two drinks 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 it stung worse than a rough first time 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 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 eyes. Then I caught sight of an array of black bars on the underside of the man’s wrist. A barcode… I gazed back up at his shaven skull and understood, and that was when he looked at me.
He smiled. His teeth were straight and perfect.
I turned my gaze away from his face, finding his tattoo again and staring. He must’ve noticed, because he folded his arms to conceal it when I brought my gaze up to his face.
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…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 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.
“Well, I won’t make you woo me, if that’s not your thing. How about you just take me home and we skip the formalities?”
Talk about coming on too strong. Part of me was a bit disappointed this man had ended up just like the rest, mostly because I yearned to hear the story behind the tattoo on his wrist. I looked for it again. Realizing it was hidden, I scratched my own instead.
“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.
“I won’t rob you or anything.” Silo stared at me as I rose from my seat, an odd pleading look in his bluish-white eyes.
“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 hadn’t thought he’d continue talking to me. As long as he didn’t make any more passes at me, I didn’t mind.
“Life,” I grumbled.
“Hah! That’s what’s got me here too, sweetheart.”
I hadn’t intended to sit with him 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, 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.
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. At intervals he still seriously asked me to take him home, and—because of my personal principles—I declined.
“Crayon…” Silo said suddenly. He 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.” He smiled.
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.
Now 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 repelling 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 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.” Silo craned his neck as if to give me a better view. “Trespassing. Apparently I’m dumb enough to cause an oil fire right in front of my own face.”
I scratched my wrist. “You didn’t?”
“Fucking tank fell off the truck. Driver started the vehicle, and then…” Silo clenched his fist before 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. A convenient excuse. 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 on me, afraid of getting caught. Bullshit. I just got out a month ago.” Silo held up his hand and ordered a Balalaika 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 damned 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.” I examined my ink and shook my head. After what had been done to me in that hellhole, I could only pray that things couldn’t possibly get worse. “So were you one of those dudes who couldn’t stand the blood, Silo?”
“Pft, no. Tattoos don’t hurt that much. I actually thought about getting another.” He stopped to take a drink of his cocktail. “Funny.” He grinned. “You didn’t say anything about my name being weird. Most people would’ve brought it up by now.”
I shrugged. “What would I say? My name’s a crayon color.” I paused, thinking long and hard about saying what I wanted to say next. I passed my gaze over Silo’s figure openly. “I’d rather mention something about that fine body.”
Silo sputtered into his drink and ended up swallowing more laughter than cocktail. “Oh, you’re finally coming around, huh?”
No, he was wrong. I wasn’t looking for any more empty sex in my life. I glanced at Silo and silently apologized for hitting on him, because I hardly had any intention of having yet another forced, emotionless romp. But that nagging fellowship I felt between Silo and me was just too strong to ignore. Maybe his relentless flirting had simply taken its toll on me, because I actually wanted to take him home now just to be close to him, the man who seemed to neither judge nor fear me.
So when I simply shrugged, I hoped Silo knew how I felt.
“Don’t come on to me half-assed.” Silo smiled despite his words. He took a swig of his cocktail, twiddling his thumbs around the stem of his glass when he set it back down on the bar. “If you don’t find me attractive, I can go back to the end of the bar.”
“N-no!” I stuttered. “I meant what I said—you do have a nice body. I just—”
“You ever get fucked in prison, Crayon?” He looked me up and down and shook his head. “You look too built to have been bullied like I was.” He snickered, almost like his words didn’t carry the horrors of his past.
The question hit me so suddenly that my mouth went dry. I almost felt like he knew what was going through my head, as if his ice-blue eyes were reading me. So it was true, then—he’d gone through the same shit as me and more in prison, and that was when I knew for sure that I wanted to take him home with me. Because, like I’d hoped, he wasn’t judging me. He understood.
I regarded Silo’s quiet trepidation with care, knowing I was treading on eggshells now. Little did he know, he was doing the same.
“No,” I lied.
Silo shook his cleanly shaven head. A thin layer of blond hair lined his scalp. He’d no doubt grow it back like most guys did after getting out of the hole. I’d decided a long time ago I’d keep the clean-cut look. I have the face for it—a squared jaw and slightly smaller than average forehead. I could pull it off without looking like a stressed-out manic losing his hair early.
“My cellmate jumped me once, a real prick,” Silo said. “He looked good in orange, though. If I had to find anything good about that prick, it’d be that. But hey, my physicals showed me clean right up till the end, so I suppose I should be grateful for that.”
Silo laughed. “You don’t know the half of it.” He drained his second cocktail and reclined in his chair again. For the first time that night, he looked completely relaxed, comfortable in his jeans and T-shirt. “So do you normally pick guys up while you smell like stale water and old people?”
Like he could talk. “Hey, you’d be lucky to have hot water where I’m holed up now.”
“I’m probably in no better state. 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. 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.
“Do you have a place set up for you?” Silo nudged me.
“An apartment, yeah. My sister was kind enough to find one for me. Of course she made me walk my ass there, but she’s paying my way until I get a job. It’s not that great, but whatever.”
“When’d you get out?” Silo rested the base of his palm against his hairless temple.
“About eight months ago.” I laughed. “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…” Silo’s posture turned rigid again, and he sat upright. “I’ll make you a deal. A free fuck for a place to stay. One per day, if you want.” 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 bed?”
“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 nagging any other men like he had been me all night, 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 recognized 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.”
“They not too keen on the whole fire-starter image you’ve made for yourself?”
“Oh, I’m the pride of the fucking family for my achievements.” Silo grinned.
I didn’t grin back, too busy thinking.
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.
My main reason for allowing Silo to come home with me was based on one important thing, though: 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 at my place. Not being judged for once in my life sure felt like heaven on earth, because I was tired of being looked at like I was a devil.
“Fine.” I stood from my seat again. “But you’re not a criminal anymore, nor are you 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 turned around so my back faced him and finally grinned. “Don’t burn down my house.”
(excerpt from Seeing Red ; Chapter One)