-- I love you, he says, crying. I love you so much you can't begin to imagine it. I love love love you, I love you, I love you more than… More than… More than… I love… I love…

She touches him and he screams. He grabs her hand and cries into her fingers, and she laughs and runs her finger coyly along his back.

-- I love you.

-- I love you.

-- Oh please…

Oh shit this was the desert, wasn't it? He hurt. He hurt a lot. His body throbbed, but his leg was the worst. It was a surprise every time he looked down to see that his leg was ripped open, infected. Blood on black cloth. His skin was raw and peeling from the desert sun. His hat wasn't helping anything but his face, and that only sometimes. He was almost not upright.

Something coming, something coming roar….

-- You need help?

He squinted. A van crawled by next to him. The driver was leaning out of the window looking at him. Oh Jesus she was beautiful a goddamn model or something not useful to him at all she couldn't help could she?

-- You're bleeding a lot, brother, she said.

-- N…No…

-- Look, you're coming with me. You stink like the dead.

Oh the black was coming…

Jesus that face so beautiful he wanted wanted those lips those eyes that hair those breasts. She leaned over him smiling, loving and bright.

-- Where…

-- You're okay now. She pats his leg and he pulls away violently and it hurts more.

-- How…

-- You talked a hell of a lot for someone who's supposed to be unconscious. I couldn't get you to shut up. Something about a fight, was it? Or an accident? I had to stuff some panties in your mouth to keep you quiet.

Her panties in his mouth oh that was sweet but what had happened what had happened…

Oh yeah.

The fight for money. Yeah. He patted at the pocket of his pants and found that his wallet still bulged with it, with bills. His leg had been ripped open but goddamn if those pussies were going to touch him after a win like that. That tin shed in the desert that led to the basement with the strippers… Oh that had been good. Standing there and fighting with a knife in his hand… The other guy was dead…

-- Thanks, dollface. He sat up and touched the bandages around his leg gingerly. The leg of his pants was cut away roughly with scissors and his leg was pinched closed somehow… stitches probably.

-- You a nurse or something?

-- Have been. She smiled sweetly at him. Where are you going, anyway?

-- Nowhere special. Why?

-- Same here. Wanna come with?

Oh that face she smiled at him. What a person to know what a girl to meet in the desert in a van what a place what a time he wanted wanted wanted oh the touch that had to come and that would be good that would be very good. His hand shook.

She grasped it gently and brought his fingers to her mouth. Softly like a newborn child she touched them, then just as softly touched them with her tongue.

-- Who are you?

-- Dustin. Who are you? He smiled at her and flinched when she dropped his hand on the bandage on his leg. He leaned closer to her, rested his head on her lap.

-- Bella, she said. She held his hand, touched it to her breast, then laughed at the expression on his face.

-- Not now no way, she said. You still stink like anything. We're getting you in a shower.

-- With you?

-- No.

Fresh water from a thing overhead and how good it felt to wash away the dust and blood and grit. Bella was out in the truck stop that was like a palace with white tile floors and pale-stripe walls and damn the water was good. Pink around his feet. That was good.

He climbed out and dried with the towel Bella had given him. He pulled on his pants and felt for his wallet and his knife and everything else he'd had with him. All there. He put on his shirt and coat and hat and the band would be wet from the shower but who gave a shit anyway? He limped out of the showers.

A big bastard stood at the sinks washing his hands and giving himself a shave and Dustin felt the man's gaze like hands. The door was almost open when a for-real hand gripped his ass and waist and pulled him round.

-- Hey buddy. The bastard leered. Where you going?

-- Nowhere.

-- Why not stick around, huh?

-- No.

A flash of knife and slam! The bastard clutched his bicep and howled and swung with his good hand into Dustin's chin. Black stars and whistles and Dustin came back with a low swing across the thigh for the bastard and a strike up into the chin and the bastard was on the floor.

-- Here, said Dustin. He drew the knife across his left-hand mount of Venus and pressed it to the bastard's lips. His spine thrilled and the bastard pressed his lips into flesh and Dustin pulled away and put his knife back where it belonged.

He smiled a little and walked back out into the trucker palace. Bella stood at the door with a bag full of chips and soda and acid-based energy drinks and tampons and sandwiches.

-- You ready? She smiled at him, and he saw how her teeth were like fetishes inside her skin, secrets that she threw around for everyone but that only he could understand. He touched her lip and pressed it closed. No one else could know those secrets no one not now not know.

-- Yeah.

-- Let's go then.

Another smile oh yes!

The van was hot and music roared around the metal walls and there was a whole lot of nothing outside and a lifetime inside. Dustin touched her and she let him and she laughed.

-- Who are you? She smiled when she asked it and Dustin dug his teeth into her lip and pulled her closer. His hands trembled but that was adrenaline and energy drink and oh yes her her.

-- Who are you? She whispered it in his ear and snaked her tongue around the hidden curves there. His hand was on her hip inside her pants and it was warm and soft and she was close as skin to him.

-- Who are you? He gripped her hair and licked with the grain of the tendons in her neck. She laughed when he pulled her head back and dug her fingers into the back of his neck and with her free hand poured energy drink down his throat until he choked and gargled and spat it onto her and then she laughed again.

-- Who am I, you asked? He smiled with his teeth and his girl-mouth and screamed when she pressed her knee into the newly-bandaged wound. Oh this was good this was good this was all for him and this was good so good…

Oh Jesus fear in a handful of dust a greater thing than all the worthies oh Jesus oh Venus oh Cthulhu this is good oh it's her what words we say now what shit it doesn't matter…

-- I was serious when I asked who you were, she said. She was driving and he was sitting in the back of the van sprawled on the one seat she'd left in it with his leg propped on the opposite wall.

-- What does it matter who I am? All I want is you,

-- Clichéd sonofabitch, she laughed.

-- Who are you, anyway? What the hell kind of name is Bella?

He was afraid now that she would laugh at him because he had faked all his way to this point even though he left everything behind on his 25th birthday and hadn't called Spring City since and hitched with truckers and stole a bicycle just to get west. And then what the hell was he thinking? With a knife from goddamn Wal-Mart he went into the basement to fight for money and that was a damn bad idea. He had scars across his wrists and paper-cuts that hadn't healed and until he was 19 all he did was read and it didn't take long to realize that there was a hell of a lot he didn't know. But he had boxed in school and that had been damn useful. And her… her…

-- Bella is my kind of name, she said. I could say the same thing about Dustin. What's it supposed to mean, anyway? Were you born under Saint Dustinian?

-- No, Jesus, no.

-- You talk about Jesus a lot, don't you?

-- Come on, Bella…

-- Don't come on me. I've seen your insides and they were such a mess I had to sew them back in. But I know you better than your mother now. In a way.

-- Maybe.

-- It's true, Dustin. Before I sewed you up I stuck my fingers in your wound and pressed it all around until I touched the bone. I've got one on you. I could… I could voodoo the shit out of you if I wanted to.

-- You don't seem like the voodoo princess type, you know?

-- Shows what you know, dumbass.

-- Who are you, anyway? Why did you stop for me?

She looked at him for a little too long, then turned back to the road when she started to swerve into desert.

-- You're hot, she said finally. That's why I stopped.

-- You like guns?

It had been quiet for a long time before she asked the question and it somehow didn't surprise him.

-- Yeah.

-- There's a couple back there, you know. Handguns. Rifles.

-- What for?

She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. His breath came in ragged. She turned back to the road.

-- What do you think they're for?

-- Oh sweet Jesus I love you.

Bella pulled the van into the parking lot a Stop-Mart by the highway, then climbed over him into the back.

-- You can move okay, right? Like, you can walk okay?

-- I did before, he said.

-- Oh right. I forgot. Okay, this is my first time doing this around here, so I don't know what kind of security they'll have. Leave your hat here and put these on.

She tossed him a ski mask with two small holes for eyes and a pair of rubber surgical gloves. He pulled the ski mask on just as she took two handguns out and put them on his lap, tenderly pointing towards his member. He pulled on the surgical gloves and picked up the guns, admiring the way they fit in his hand.

-- How old are you?

She looked surprised by the question.

-- Eighteen. Why?

-- No reason.

-- Okay, boy, gimme all the money in the register.

Dustin was distracted by how sexy she looked with a ski mask on. The surgical gloves were much paler and yellower than her skin. She aimed the rifle at the head of the clerk. Dustin stood behind her, hands raised to show his handguns were ready.

-- What should I… Oh Jesus… What…

-- Put the money in a bag, shithead, she said. Do it fast. And don't even think of calling the police. I know about those button things you guys got.

The clerk looked nervous and young, younger than either of them.

-- Dustin, take care of the security cameras, huh?

He smiled. He was happy to obey her and it was a pleasure to see the cameras above the door and desk and in the corner explode into black plastic and buzzing. Oh that was good oh this was good.

-- Give me the money, boy, she said, keeping the rifle leveled at his head. The boy nervously passed the plastic bag over the counter.

-- Dustin, take the bag. She leapt up, a beautiful, athletic curve of her like a cat, onto to the counter. She was now some three feet taller than the boy and aiming down at him.

-- Don't be scared, she whispered. Then she kicked him in the face sent him back into the wall and bang bang bang! There went his legs from under him, crumpled and broken and shattered and Dustin laughed and fired into the ceiling.

-- Come on, she said. No time to celebrate.

They drove for what remained of the day and Bella was a maniac. She listened to loud music and swore at the other drivers while Dustin counted the money and fed her sandwiches and that was obscenely pleasurable for her teeth to be so close to his hand.

-- How much did we get?

-- Eight hundred, he said. In small used bills.

-- Not so bad, for less than fifteen minutes. She laughed. We're spending the night in the next hotel we find.

-- Why? He touched her shoulder, pulled back the armhole of her tank top to catch a glimpse of tattoo beneath the jersey and that was beautiful.

-- Because you need to rest, she said. You're still hurt and you shouldn't have been working so hard with me. You probably should have stayed in the car.

-- No way in hell, he said. Her arms were strong under his fingers and that was good because he was not weak not anymore. It hadn't taken long but he was strong now except for his leg. She reached up and grabbed his hand to pull it forward over her collarbone to the front of her throat and the bones were there under the skin stiff and hot and he could feel blood near his fingers near enough to warm them but still contained. Her anatomy was ecstasy.

She paid for a room at the first exit of any size and installed him in it with the porno channel going and vodka in his hand. She checked his bandage before she went out and told him to pat a little vodka into it to make sure that it was clean. Then she took off and left him spread on the plastic duvet.

He couldn't keep from smiling because she was the light and the word and the goddamn living end and her teeth had almost touched him and there was a rich bruise on the back of his neck. He felt the vodka burn down his body and watched bleached tanned bitches in PVC beat shaved naked groveling men with horsewhips and he played with the wound on his leg. He could still feel the imprint of her knee as if she was still there and that made him laugh and spew a little liquor over the bed. A few drops reached the bandage and burned as they bled into the raw stitching. He fell asleep when he finished the vodka and let the bitches beat their men until Bella came back.

She had two shopping bags full of clothes and food and other stuff.

-- I got you new clothes, she said, taking out a beat-up looking black blazer and slacks and a tee shirt with Ohio is for Lovers splashed across the front.

-- You bought from Hot Topic?

-- Yeah.

-- Jesus. Didn't think you were the type. Where'd you find a mall?

-- Down the road a ways. You want to see what I got? She smiled and played with the hem of her shirt.

-- Do you have to ask? He laughed at her.

-- Okay. She pulled off her tank top and jeans and stood in a grayed bra and black underwear with a few stray threads hanging from the waist. Her breasts were things of beauty and her waist was tiny and a few coy pubic hairs showed from her underwear. Without pausing, she pulled on a new pair of cargo pants and a vintage-looking tee-shirt that said California across her breasts.

-- What do you think?

-- What do I think? I wish you didn't have that stuff on.

-- I mean does it look good, dumbass.

-- Of course it does. Come here.

-- No. You have to rest. Just lay back.

Oh she was warm in the night and her fingers were hot in the palms and her body was strong against him. He couldn't sleep but that didn't matter because he was not sleeping with her next to him and nothing could be better than that. He had not seen the tattoo on her back but that was all right because he knew it was there and he was weirdly happily jealous of it for being so close to her all the time and when she drove her nails into the bruise from before he laughed because he wanted to be her tattoo and then screamed because she bit his ear. She was wild and that was good but he wondered where she was from and why they had met.

And then he began to wonder what would happen if he was not with her. That would be miserable. He would rather be dead than without her and he imagined the taste of the bullet he would fire into his mouth if she were taken from him. He could imagine the scene in the bathroom of a gas station or on the bed of some cheap motel, the way his blood would splatter on the wall and on the ceiling in a painting she would never see but that someone might secretly think was beautiful.

The thought of that esoteric connection with someone he would never know was thrilling and compounded by her hand across his chest. He turned over and ran his tongue along her hairline. Her skin was beautiful and he loved that it was an organ, pulsing like her heart or her lungs. He loved that he could know her like that, that he could know her body in such a wonderful way.

Everything about her was wonderful. There was nothing that could make her more beautiful. He pressed against his stitches and smiled against the pain and shut his eyes to touch her.

The next day, they were on the road again, speeding through the desert to God-knew-where and Dustin laughed when she said she wanted him to pick a place to go.

-- How the hell should I know where to go?

-- I don't know. You seemed to be heading someplace when I found you.

-- Not really. Just getting away from where I was.

-- Fine, she said, fumbling for a tape to slot in the deck. Pick a letter: N, S, E or W.

-- E.

-- Cool. And she yanked the van around in the middle of the two-lane, and they headed for E.

-- You wanna face the swamps, then? She smiled at him over her shoulder and those secret teeth flashed at him and he smiled.

-- I guess. If you want to.

-- Sounds like fun to me – shit!

Something under the car was roaring bang bang bang crash hiss…

-- What happened? He started to move but she pushed him back into his seat.

-- Let me take care of this, she said, climbing out of the car.

-- Like hell. He slid open the side door of the van and limped around to have a look. It was too goddamn quiet and he pulled out his knife.

-- Bella, he said. What's wrong?

-- Uh… She laughed slightly. She was staring at the back end of the van. We're getting bullets up the ass, my friend.

-- What? But when he got round to the back of the car she wasn't lying. There were bullet holes in the rear fender and tires.

-- The hell…

Click bang

The rear windshield shattered inwards and with a hard, flesh-bone whomp, Dustin saw nothing but darkness.