He was sitting on the front porch of a shack-like mobile home on a creaky glider, staring straight forward. It was like waking from the dead. There was a lot he didn't remember, so much he didn't remember. Odd snippets of things that didn't seem like him – sleeping with street punks and sharing their music and booze but nothing else, getting it up the ass in an alley behind a dumpster, tearing up a hotel room to write Bella in blood, walking painfully for miles and miles…
But how had he come here? This place was cold and wet and green, almost like home but no. He looked down at his leg and saw that it was set in a splint, sticking straight out in from of him on the glider. There were dying plants in pots all around, animals making their way in and out of flamingoes and cosmos in the front yard and fog all around the claustrophobic mountains. He heard a strange cry and craned his neck around to see a little boy crawling around in the mud in a chicken wire pen. He turned away and rubbed his head with both hands.
He was wearing strange clothes and his head was screwed all the way around and back and pounded terribly. He was on something and he didn't know what but he was on it all right.
He swayed and tried to focus focus as someone came out of the house. She was skinny and unpretty, wearing an old sundress with faded blue flowers printed on it. She wore ragged old flip flops on her feet and her hair hung straight and stringy around her face. She was young, maybe seventeen.
-- Hello, she said timidly. Are you really awake now?
-- What is this place? He stared at her, squinting in the mist. Who are you?
-- It's… Well, it's…
She shrugged shyly and sat down next to him. She didn't seem to know what to do with her body. It would have been pretty and coy if there had been anything of her to spare, any flesh that wasn't given over to covering bones and wiry muscles.
-- I'm Bella, she said finally. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders. And you and I… We're married now.
He had arrived there one day, simply wandered up from the road. Bella was the first one to see him as he staggered over the broken ground of the driveway, climbing up the hill with vicious strength and deadly eyes. She had stood up from weeding the cosmos and her dress had flapped around her legs in the breeze through the valley and she shivered in the summer when he fell to the ground.
-- Hey, he called, his voice broken gravel and sand. Hey. C'mere.
She took a tentative step closer to him feeling the crunch of the gravel beneath her feet and smelling the hogs from the nearby pen.
The dogs barked behind her from where they were chained. He stumbled in shock and fell to the ground, scrabbling but unable to rise.
-- You gotta… His voice was a frantic mutter into the dirt. He reached up and grabbed her skirt and when she tried to jump away she found she couldn't. Help me here, help me I gotta do the…
He let out a sudden raucous laugh and she couldn't stop herself from screaming.
That was when her brother Jake came running and saw the dying man on the ground grabbing his sister's dress. Jake ran up and kicked the man in the ribs and Bella screamed at him.
-- Don't hurt him, don't hurt him! Her voice was shrill as she pushed Jake away and bent down next to the unconscious man. He's been… I don't know what he's been.
-- Well, stop letting him touch you, you whore. Jake spat on the ground by the man's head.
Bella had bit her mouth to stop from yelling after him but her mama had come out of the trailer just in time and Bella bit harder on her mouth and mama helped her carry the man into the house.
They put him on the floor of the living room and stripped away his clothes. His body was a wreckage of bruises cuts burns and a hideous thing in his leg. It was broken, swollen, terribly infected and stank like madness. His hair was long and tangled.
-- Get me the alcohol and some water, said mama. We're gonna fix this boy up.
He screamed when they scraped his bones back in place, and he cried while they sewed his skin shut. That was when Papa came through and shot him full of horse tranquilizers and he quieted down for a while.
But then while he was healing he started talking and Bella was always sitting by him. She listened softly as he cried and sometimes she wrote things down in the telephone tablet she always kept. But then he got to Bella that other Bella and this Bella felt a flare of jealousy.
-- Don't worry, sweetheart, she whispered while he shuddered and cried. Bella's here for you now.
-- Bella, Bella, he whispered, his voice shivering his body trembling. Bella, I always loved you. I love you so much, Bella…
-- I love you too, she said, and she meant it. He was the first man she had met who never called her a whore the first man who had not hit her and delirious or not she loved him and he loved Bella and though she knew it wasn't her she loved him immoderately anyway.
-- Hey, Bella, he murmured a while later. Hey, Bella, will you… I want to marry you and quite screwing around with this. I want you for mine and do you… Do you…
-- Yes, she whispered, and she felt herself crying. Yes, darling.
She didn't even know his name.
When she told Papa he scraped his stubble and told Jake to go get the Preacher down the valley and when the Preacher came back he slurred his words and pronounced them man and wife, though Dustin was flaccid and limp and full of horse tranquilizers and Bella was kneeling at the side of his bed.
Papa said they were married and Dustin just groaned and rolled over, his eyes turned up in his head and Bella stroked his cheek.
That night she lay beside him as he slept and felt his warm unconscious body next to her and cried for sheer joy.
As he recovered, they started moving him around on Mama's orders. Jake would half-drag him out to the front porch and set him on the creaking glider while Bella watered the plants and looked after Petey in his pen when Darla couldn't do it and helped Mama make food for Jake and Brian. Her brothers and Papa hit her and Darla whined and Mama ignored her and Petey just screamed, but Dustin was always there, staring straight ahead or looking at her with delirious tranquilized loving eyes or trembling and needing her really needing her and her love grew. She hated being too far away from him or out of sight of him because he was beautiful and he loved a girl who wasn't her but had her name which was good enough for her.
She slept with him every night, kept by him every day and she loved him.
When Dustin woke up on the glider that day, though, he could barely recognize himself. His clothes were completely different – battered jeans stained with things he didn't want to think about, ratty ancient flannel shirt and tee shirt with Steve Austin on it – and he didn't know how his leg was in a splint and he didn't know who this girl was that had said they were married.
-- But wait, he said. Wait. How did I… How did I get here?
It was hard to think straight and he was certain he was on something he'd never been on before. It made his head thick and his mouth flappy.
-- You jus' wandered up the hill one day, she said. Her teeth were not good but they were large and her lips were broad. Her body was skinny in the sack-like sundress and he could still smell the thrift store on it.
-- And we're… You said we're married? He had to know these things even though he wasn't processing her answers, was just taking them in and storing them for later.
-- Papa called the Preacher and he come and married us, she said. She smiled at him and though her face was unpretty she looked luminescent and he was startled.
-- I love you a lot, she went on, bony hands fidgeting in her lap, fidgeting closer to the seam of the jeans that weren't his. I'm real glad you're awake now, 'cause you were out for a long time.
-- Yeah. He let his voice trail off. He still wasn't awake yet, and he didn't want to be with this bony, unpretty, big-mouthed girl. Bella's gorgeous cut-up flesh called to him from the desert and he longed for it, longed to touch it again, to thrust his fingers into her and know her secret teeth. He wanted her, moaned deep in his chest for her, but she was so far away and his head was fuzzy with something that he didn't know what it was. He ached and his leg throbbed and this other Bella moved the glider gently with her foot.
-- Did you hear me, honey? Her voice was soft in his ear. His Bella would have been biting his earlobe; this girl whispered. I said I love you. A lot. A whole lot.
-- I heard you… honey, he whispered, hating himself for calling her that.
Beneath the fog of tranquilizer, his mind tried to race. It didn't matter how he'd come here.
He only knew that he needed to get away.
These were the things that were on the farm:
First, there was skinny, unpretty Bella, forever wearing sack-like dresses and flip-flops, her hair bound back in a long, fine braid, her skin freckled like future cancer from too much sun, her teeth too big her mouth too broad her eyes too naïve to stay alive. For the first few weeks, she sat by him every day, slipping him tranquilizers when he began to pant from the pain and didn't care who she was as long as she had a way to take away the pain. She helped him walk, brought him food, slept with him at night, clinging to him like a fungus. He hated her like he hated a stray dog that follows you everywhere: Not enough to hurt it, but not enough to go out of your way for it, either. He tried to keep it up because she said he said things while he was delirious, things that would get her hurt by her father and he didn't really want to see that.
Then there was her mother, a vast, waddling creature, dressed just like Bella but always with heavy orthopedic shoes and support stockings in place of flip-flops. She had borne five children and three dead things, and her body was stretched and used up. She almost never spoke except to scream at one of the boys or order Bella to start on the meal. Dustin almost sympathized with his bride, simply because she was so put upon and always just took it. Mrs. Bella's Mother was a force to be reckoned with, but Bella had told him to feel grateful to her for fixing him when his leg was broken and his body bleeding.
Bella had three brothers: Jake, Brian and Petey. Jake was the oldest of the lot, tall, rangy, rancid with mountains and shit. He had a snarling vicious streak and it was never the wrong time to send a kick at Bella's legs or a blow at her raw-boned face. When Bella wasn't around, he sometimes hit Dustin's splinted leg, too, but this came to a halt when Dustin finally pushed him away with the heel of his hand under his nose. And Brian was exactly the same, but shorter and fatter – together, they were a hideous duo. Dustin guessed that they were both irreparable smackheads or drunks from age eight or both, though he was usually too tranq-addled himself to think quite straight. He hated both of them, though, and couldn't wait for the day the mother took his splint off so he could take the fight to them.
Petey, on the other hand, was a virtual non-entity, treated by most of his family more like a sick animal they were forbidden from killing than a member of the family. He was profoundly retarded, half-blind, mostly mute and, during the day, confined to a chicken wire pen near the coop. Bella was kind to him, but it didn't seem that anything could touch him, really. Dustin felt a kind of kinship for him, even though Petey's fixed stare freaked him out. The poor boy would die before he hit eighteen, if he was lucky, and Dustin doubted that it would be through natural causes.
And finally there was Darla, the oldest but Jake, with ugly pouting lips and a too-soft face and rolls on her wrists though she was almost twenty. Dustin privately guessed that Jake and possibly Brian were screwing her and that she liked it. She just had that kind of look. Her clothes were always muddy and she spoke in a permanent whine, words trailing into each other in a high-pitched ululation. She spent all the time she could on the sofa in front of the incongruous massive-screen TV, watching MTV at astonishing volumes. Dustin hated her dispassionately, because she was of a kind – fat girls who insist on wearing leggings and tee shirts with Winnie the Pooh on them, who wear too much make up and speak in a droning whine. Compared to her clothing, the baggy dresses favored by Bella and her mother were a godsend.
And then – he almost forgot about him, the man was so horrible – there was Bella's father. Tall and rangy, like Jake, he disappeared for days at a time, off in the fields and mountains, hunting regardless of season or game. The house was always full of the stench of raw meat in various stages of preparation because of him, and half the furniture was covered in deer and bobcat pelts. But it was better when he was gone, because when he was at home he was meaner than Brian and Jake combined and twice as drunk. He hit everything that walked by him or that he walked by, including Petey. Dustin could never forget the sight of Petey shrieking in abject terror as the father shouted at him, whipping him with a heavy leather belt until the boy's skin stood in welts and blood flowed from his lips to mingle with his spittle. It was disgusting and the man was disgusting and someday Dustin vowed that he would take his revenge on these people, yes, even on Bella because she married him. He hated her touch as much as Chelsea's, and sometimes welcomed thoughts of dead Anna as a relief from Bella's sick-puppy caresses. At least Anna tried to fight but this Bella was beat when she was born, came into the world with a white flag and a smile that whimpered "don't hurt me don't hurt me." He hated that.
It was his mantra, his only thread. Stay alive.
Don't stay strong. Don't stay brave. Don't even stay sane.
Just stay alive.
Alive, with teeth.
He heard wolves behind his eyes sometimes, and grinned like he had pointed teeth.
It was almost a month before the mother took his cast off for good. His leg was sore and withered and he didn't think it would ever be the same but why should it? He had taken enough abuse and he had earned a god-damn limp if anyone had. Bella took a sapling that had been cut and dried and gave it to him to walk with. He felt like an outcast druid but he carved it with an old knife he'd found, carved words and faces in it.
Every face was His Lady of the Desert Bella's, every word her glorious name.
This Bella thought it was her, and tried to offer him her body.
Her hip bones thrust forward like wooden coat hangers and her breasts were pre-adolescent small. When she dropped the dress, that simple gesture was just enough to bring back the room in the compound, with the almost-cracked fourteen-year-old.
He'd told her to stay alive, whatever it took. Split herself into little pieces, but stay alive with teeth.
Bella was born dead.
Still she insisted on laying with him, so-gently made him take off all his clothes and asked him about ever scar and every mark and kissed the scars across his wrists and told him he would never feel like that again.
He bit his mouth until it bled, trying not to laugh when she said that.
He wanted to do it again. He would do it again.
He planned to, until he came up with an idea.
He had a lot of free time and a lot of horse tranquilizers and he started hanging out by Petey's cage. Petey didn't recognize him, but didn't seem bothered by his presence. Instead, the boy just played in a puddle of mud that was without doubt giving him a hideous intestinal disorder while Dustin either watched or talked or both.
And that was how he knew he could stay alive, while he waited to get out.
-- So, Petey, he said, beginning in the too-casual way he always did when he was trying not to patronize the kid. So, I… I fell in love with this girl, and she was a goddess, man. And I want to… I want to honor that.
Petey glanced briefly at him, blind eye blank in his face, then looked back at the mud and sucked a little from his fingers.
-- What do you think I should do?
Petey glanced over his shoulder, then slowly turned around, revolving on his ass. Dustin watched, nonplussed thanks to stuff that stops horses dead. When Petey had gone back to his mud, Dustin looked the way the boy had.
There was an unused shed there, over on the next hill from the house. Bella's family had a fair amount of land even though they had no money and the shed was on their property. Dustin stared at it, thinking. If he could get the things he needed, maybe he could keep himself alive.
-- Thanks, Petey, he muttered, using his druid-stick to get back up. He bent down and stroked the boy's filthy, matted hair. I love you, kid.
Petey groaned, but Dustin thought maybe he smiled.
So this is what Dustin did, while he bided his time on the mountain farm:
He gathered wire and metal and meat and dead things and mud and blood from himself and a chicken and the feathers and meat and meat and chicken wire. Slowly, weeks, he took these things to the abandoned shed on the other hill, staying out of the sight of Jake and Brian and the father and the mother and even Bella. She wouldn't have understood; she would have given him that look that didn't understand. He took these things to the shed, and there he built his masterpiece.
He started with a skeleton of rusty barbed wire, which he had to be careful with, then suspended it from the ceiling with twine he found in the shed. He began to pack it with mud thickened with blood and free papers that appeared every day in the mailbox at the bottom of the hill. Then he began to add pieces of spare meat, things that could not be eaten, that would never be consumed – stringy tendons, hooves, parts of heads and simply extra that the family would otherwise leave to rot for the pigs and cows to eat. He set these things in blood-thick mud, held them in place with chicken wire wrapped in sharp strips around the meat. He worked lovingly, carefully, bleeding into it every ounce of strength and passion and as much blood as he could spare.
He made hair from straw, stuck short in the head of the thing like a bad crew cut. He made lips from apples, pulled from a tree before the wasps could eat them. He made eyes from pebbles from the cows' creek. He draped it in ancient rags of tarps he had stolen from the barn.
-- Why do you smell like meat? Bella asked him once.
-- Because the whole house smells like it, he replied, knowing it was true. What with your dad bringing stuff in here all the time…
-- Okay, she said, placated. I just… I love you 'cause you're not a killer like pa and Jake and Brian.
-- Thanks, honey, he said.
He wished he could kill her in her sleep.
Maybe he would, when the time came.
But he was distracted for a time after the cast came off. Whatever had been giving him this quiet buzz for a month or more was starting to tell. His abdomen cramped when he moved. He found himself sitting on the hideous toilet in the trailer, shitting his guts out for fifteen minutes at a time. It felt like the lower half of his digestive tract had decided to hate him. His hands were shaking. He wondered if Bella noticed it when he forced himself to stroke her; that his fingers trembled over her scraggy flesh. He wondered if she mistook illness for desire. He hoped it was the latter because it would have made him laugh if he hadn't felt too sick from deer meat and reserpine to care.
He didn't eat much, and stopped letting the mother inject him with stuff.
He could barely move. He clung to his druid stick like it could save his life.
-- So, there was this woman I used to know called Ramona, he said to Petey one day, while Petey was playing in the mud.
-- She was, like, really scary, right? He sounded almost like he used to, when he bothered to talk in high school or when he hung out with Jimmy Schwartz way back when.
-- She'd… She put out a goddamn cigar, he said. On my arm. Dude, check it out.
He showed the mark to Petey, who didn't bother looking up.
-- And I'm just wondering, Dustin went on, lowering his voice and looking around furtively. I'm wondering if your mom isn't scarier than her.
Petey blew a spit bubble and popped it with a muddy finger, then let out a moan.
Dustin groaned and clutched his stomach. Slowly, he stood up and went back to the bathroom.
He wanted out, but it wasn't happening.
One night, he crept out of the trailer while Jake and Brian were off getting wasted someplace, and Bella, Darla, the mother and father and Petey were all asleep. He crept out, and made his way across the fields with Bella's stick to his shed.
He clicked on a lighter he'd stolen from the father and lit up the makeshift lantern he'd rigged in the shed. The unstable light fell on his sick and rotting idol, on the meat melting through chicken wire.
It was really sick. It was a sick thing. It looked like blood and vomit and pain and the decay that comes after death when you can feel it. It looked like the watery shit he flushed away in the trailer. It looked like the eyes of a dead deer hanging upside down from a tree while its blood drains.
He loved it.
Slowly, he fell against it, feeling it swing with his weight from its ceiling supports. He pressed himself into it, squeezing his body into the meat and wire, feeling the wire ends scraping his skin bloody, leaving him ripe for flesh-eating bacteria and rank decay. He suckled at the raw meat, fighting back vomit and the desire to laugh. The stench of rotten meat – cloying, floral, dead lettuce and butchery – flowed into him, bringing him close to death and the little death and death in all its reality. He embraced that, clung to the hideous thing, flung himself wholeheartedly into the disgusting reality that the body decays into noxious jelly before soaking into the plastic-fabric lining of the coffin. He laugh and licked the meat and tore his tongue on chicken wire and tasted mud beneath the meat and hadn't his mother said God made them from dust and mud seemed to much more likely anyway. Dust and God's blood and oh yes…
Spill a little blood and you have poetry.
He laughed and bit into rotten meat, then suddenly turned and ran from the shed as best he could, stumbling over the uneven ground falling and twitching as he tripped over the rocky ground, stick flailing in the night, spitting meat from his mouth.
His idol was a pulp of mud blood and wire, no longer human shaped. No longer Bella shaped.
He was going to do it now.
Now was the time.