Renton shifted uncomfortably in the tree. He hadn’t been looking forward to this one, but it wasn’t like he could object. Henry wasn’t exactly running a fucking democracy. And it was somewhat of a compliment to be given the day shift; although, his only competition for the assignment had been Jeremy, but even so, they were the only two Henry trusted when it came to Maya.
The first few days had been the easiest. She had stayed with another girl in an apartment downtown. He sat in the caf?cross the street, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, and kept a laptop open in front of him, typing sporadically to give the impression that he was working. It was decent; no one bothered him, and since there were always eight or nine others doing the same thing, no one was suspicious. He sat by the window and waited for her to leave. Since she had just run away, she was overly paranoid and so she cloistered herself away in the one bedroom postage stamp. He often saw her leaning out of the window to have a cigarette. Her arm looked like a disembodied swan’s neck.
It was a cushy few weeks, but he knew it wouldn’t last. Eventually she moved in with her brother Warren, that jealous piece of shit. Renton always got the feeling that he dug Maya a little too much, was too protective of her and too overbearing. He sensed something almost incestuous there, and he didn’t like it. He wouldn’t be surprised if Warren had tried some shit with her. But there was more to his reluctance, something he would never tell Henry or Jeremy. Warren was fucking huge. Renton wasn’t sure if he could take him. The last thing he wanted was to be spotted lurking around the dude’s house, even if worst came to worse, he was pretty certain he could outrun him. And the goddamn dog. It was almost a deal-breaker when Renton first saw it, but it turned out the thing was on its last legs, half-blind and completely deaf.
But despite the awkwardness of perching in the tree and the underlying threat of a vicious beating, he loved the fact that he was able to see almost everything she did, and it was ironically more intimate than when she’d been living with them. In the morning she made breakfast for Warren and saw him off to work. He’d lean over and kiss her forehead before leaving. Then she sat on the back porch with her coffee and a cigarette. He watched her closely, as if seeing her for the first time. She wasn’t any different than she’d ever been; a part of him had wondered how her newly found freedom would affect her, but everything seemed the same. The sunlight glinted off her golden hair, a messy and ethereal waterfall.
She spent her time as she always had—reading, taking baths, cooking. But his new perspective allowed him to see her in a different light. He smiled at how severely she contorted her body while she lounged on the couch. She started simply sitting with her legs curled underneath her, then she’d sprawl out on her back, extend a leg or two straight up in the air, and somehow after a few hours she’d be completely upside down, her head resting on the carpet, knees bent and feet flat against the wall. And he knew she liked to take a long bath every day, but he never realized the inordinate amount of bubbles that she used. He assumed she read while she was in there, but in actuality she would… play. She dug tunnels through the bubbles or colored on the tile with fat, washable markers.
She was so uninhibited the minute she was alone. Renton had never seen her like that. When she was done bathing, she’d rinse off without closing the shower curtain; he loved that. It was his favorite part of the day. Henry would explode if he knew Renton had that perfect view, right through the gap between the curtain and the right side of the window, but he didn’t plan on telling him. The water splashed against her honey skin.
For three months he sat in the tree on the east side of the house, with a perfect view to her bedroom and the bathroom. Watching her had become more than a job, it had become his own private fantasy. Warren lived deep in the woods in a secluded house, and he worked a lot, so Renton had her all to himself during the day. Jeremy took the night shift and all he had to do was park down the road and wait to see if anyone came or went. He said sometimes he’d sneak down to the house just to see what they were up to, but it would only be the two of them, watching TV or talking. Renton was glad he didn’t have to see that. Seeing her make his breakfast and clean his house was bad enough.
Renton continued to enjoy his days with her, only slightly undermined by the thought that this wouldn’t last. The first time he saw her untie the cloth belt of her robe his heart skipped a beat; his head turned sharply away. He shouldn’t be seeing this, he told himself; he’d never been a terribly ethical person, but it seemed wrong somehow. She was Henry’s girl, but more than that, there seemed to be something… untouchable about her. Like she was better than him. He’d never thought much about until this moment. Although his instinct was to avert his eyes, he slowly looked back up. Just in time. The robe slipped off her shoulders and fell to the floor. Her wavy blond hair trickled halfway down her back. Renton’s eyes followed the gentle torrent, taking in the perfect bend of her waist, the way she arched her back that caused her smooth ass to jut out, as if it were asking, begging, demanding that he take it in his hands and sink his teeth into its flesh… Her skin was unblemished, flawless, except for the wounds, but even they were beginning to heal now. There was no one to tend to them.
She turned and showed him her profile. She pushed her hands into her hair, bringing it off her back, revealing her regal neck. His eyes ambled from her angular elbow, down to the concaveness of her underarm, offset by the roundness of her breast. Her thigh was slightly forward and robbed him of the sight of anything more than four inches below her navel. Nevertheless, he felt his sex push against his jeans. She was standing with her heels lifted, as if she were wearing invisible heels. He took a few deep breaths—there was no way he was going to masturbate in a tree. He’d probably fall and break his fucking neck, and ruin everything. He stuck to this decision even as she stepped into the bathtub and spent the next half hour digging tunnels in the bubbles and piling them into uneven and unstable mounds. His urges began to subside; he was even amused that he had even allowed himself to be so turned on by her, knowing what Henry would do to him if he found out. And then Maya stood.
The water slowly drained out of the bathtub. Suds slid down her body. He thought he was going to have a heart attack. His erection came back with a vengeance, as if to say, “You tried to deny me earlier, mother fucker, but now I’m going to have my way.” Renton didn’t think it was fair to deny him.
Maya turned on the shower. The wispy foam was driven from her flesh in little streams, and he stared at the sights he had missed before. Her breasts seemed fuller and her petite mocha nipples were rigid. Her left hand moved slowly up between them, fingertips running along her collarbone. Her right hand slid across her hips, and then down. She lifted her leg and propped her foot on the ledge of the tub. The blush lips of her sex were opened in anticipation, blooming like a flower as she pressed her fingers against her clit.
He couldn’t hold back any longer. He unzipped his jeans and his cock sprang forth, eager to become more actively involved in what was happening. He spit into his hand and began stroking himself, watching as she pleasured herself; he moved in succession with her. She grabbed a handful of hair on the side of her head; he propped his leg against a branch for more solidity. Her mouth opened, her eyes were squeezed shut, her nose wrinkled slightly. He wished he could hear something besides his own groans; the expression on her face indicated she was not holding back. He imagined he was the one touching her. “Fuck,” he whispered. “Yeah. You love that. You fucking love it.”
She was pulling at her hair with one hand and working furiously with the other. Finally the quiet was broker by her muffled groans. It drove him crazy, and he didn’t know how much longer he could last. Her moans grew louder, more dynamic, until she was shouting incoherent words and pseudo-religious phrases.
They came simultaneously. He drove ribbons of cum into the air. Her cheeks were pink, her face pressed against the wall of the shower. She licked her lips swiftly as her chest heaved. He was covered in sweat and gasping for air as well. As she began to get control of her breathing, she began to smile. This caught him off guard. He’d never really considered that a woman would masturbate for her own pleasure, and not for someone else, and if she wasn’t getting paid for it. He never imagined a woman to be sexual by herself. Even after watching her, he still wasn’t sure. Was she truly being completely uninhibited, or did she know he was watching her? On some level she had to have a notion that someone was keeping tabs on her and reporting back to Henry. Did she know it was him? Did she have a preference?
Over time, he was convinced she was doing everything for his benefit. Every day it was the same; Warren left for work, she smoked a cigarette and drank her coffee, read for awhile, and then put on a show for him. It never got old. He still felt tremors radiate throughout his being as she slowly shed her robe and panties. The anticipation built while she was in the bathtub; the humidity, her own sweat, and the bubbles compressed her wispy hair and caused her skin to take on a beautiful glow.
Renton stayed awake at night thinking of her, and couldn’t get to that tree fast enough in the morning. Everything was perfect—he didn’t think Henry suspected anything, she never altered her schedule, and even the tree was getting to be relatively comfortable.
But one day, Jeremy came home and said that Warren had brought some guy over to the house, and the three of them had spent the night drinking and playing cards. The guy ended up passing out on the living room couch. Henry was reasonable—he simply demanded to know everything about this new complication. Renton found himself oddly jealous, mostly because it reminded him that she wasn’t in isolation anymore. And it brought up his old exasperation with Henry’s supposed “plan.” He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t gotten her back yet.
Regardless, this guy was infiltrating Rent’s days with Maya. He’d settle in to watch an afternoon of her literary contortionist act and then the thought of this guy would spring up and he’d be unable to enjoy it. Jeremy told the same tale every weekend, with the same guy, who they now knew as Deke Matthews. He did research in tuberculosis with the health department part-time, he was the youngest of three boys, he lived in a decent condo downtown, he had used heroin for five years and had been clean for two, he was a vegetarian, he volunteered with a hospice center. Renton hated him, had only seen his visage from the pictures Jeremy snapped of their last party. He was tall and sinewy, with brown hair flattened under a baseball cap. He dressed unremarkably in jeans and t-shirts.
“I think he might pose a problem in the future,” Henry commented.
Jeremy looked up. “Yeah? He doesn’t talk very much.”
“Then you need to use your eyes. Look at his expression,” he asserted. “When Warren talks, he listens, but his eyes are blank. When she talks, he’s alert, and he smiles. His eyes stay on her even when she looks away.”
“Well, he looks like a douche anyway,” Renton grumbled, but Henry ignored him.
A month later, in the middle of the afternoon, Deke Matthews turned up on the doorstep. Renton was furious, and only mildly relieved that she was surprised to see him. But she let him in anyway. They sat in the living room for awhile, then they migrated to the porch and smoked cigarettes until Warren came home. Deke began doing this once a week, then two or three times, and soon he was coming to see her everyday. Henry was irritated, but there seemed to be nothing sexual to their relationship. But Renton was livid. Deke had ruined his days with Maya; now she only took quick showers in the morning and she sat upright in the loveseat until she heard his knock. Eventually she started making lunch in anticipation of him.
One day, she was doing dishes when Deke came up behind her. He placed his hands gently on her waist and leaned in, his lips brushing her bare shoulder. She let go of the sponge and turned to face him. Her eyes were wide. They looked at each other for a long minute; he brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead. Renton almost burst through the window.
Deke leaned in to kiss her—Renton thought for a moment that she would turn away; there was no way in hell that she’d let him—but her chin lifted and her eyes closed. He pressed his lips against hers briefly, then pulled away. There was a delay before she opened her eyes, and he just stared at her, smiling. They seemed to turn simultaneously towards the slider to the porch and Renton panicked for a moment because he wouldn’t have time to retreat to the side of the house, so he ducked behind a bush.
“You know that opening at Saint John’s hospital I was telling you about?”
“The TB awareness educator?” she asked.
“Yeah, the funding finally came in. I was thinking, with your background in education, maybe you should apply. You’d have really flexible hours, and… I think you’d do a great job.”
She was silent for a few moments before she replied, “You know, I think I will. It would be nice to get back into that.”
So thanks to Deke Matthews, Renton’s job became harder and exponentially less enjoyable. Once she got the job at Saint’s, she made the decision to move in with Deke until she could find her own place. She couldn’t afford to commute from Warren’s house. Renton couldn’t believe that Warren actually approved of his little sister living with another man, but he seemed happy for them.
Renton didn’t see anything more than the kiss in the kitchen, which he had dramatized for Henry’s sake. But then again, it was difficult to see inside Deke’s condo. It was in the middle of downtown, so there was no good spot for him to sit without being noticed. Eventually he found a foreclosed house. He broke into it through the back door and sat in one of the empty bedrooms with his binoculars. There was another guy that Henry had hired who oversaw the three days week that she was at the health department. Renton was glad he didn’t have to deal with that, but still, he hated watching the two of them together. Deke seemed enamored with her. So Renton didn’t understand why he never saw Deke try anything more than what he had done that day in Warren’s kitchen. One night they were talking and she started to cry a little, so he held her. But that was as far as he went. Renton had to wonder how much she had told Deke about her past, or what Warren might have revealed to him. But he could never hear their conversations, and only very briefly did he see their interactions.
Henry wanted more that Renton was giving him. He didn’t understand why Rent had so little to report. He didn’t believe that there was nothing sexual going on between the two of them; well, he was willing to believe that Maya might not betray him. But, as he said, “Deke’s a guy; as much as I try not to play into stereotypes, it’s how we’re trained to be. To get to one level means we’re already scheming on how to get to the next one.”
Renton had to take more risks so he wouldn’t get chastised. As much as he didn’t want to see Deke’s douchebag hands on her, he wished that they’d just get it over with. Then they could go get her and bring her home for good. And one rainy Saturday afternoon it happened. They were drinking whiskey and killed the fifth. Inside the bedroom, Renton could just make out their silhouettes. Maya was the one who came up to him, wrapped her arms around his neck and embraced him. Renton was so excited that he dropped his binoculars and drove home as fast as he could.
He burst into the house. Henry and Jeremy were sitting at the kitchen table, eating sandwiches.
“He kissed her again!” he shouted, leaving out the part that they were drunk, and the reality that she was the one who kissed him.
“Where were they?” asked Henry.
“In the bedroom.”
“What happened next?”
Renton hesitated. “Well, I…”
Henry’s jaw clenched. “You didn’t stick around to find out?” Renton looked down. “That’s so unlike you.” He stood and grabbed a paper bag out of the pantry. “We’re going to have to have a conversation about this. You’ve been letting your emotions get the better of you for the past year. I’m not happy about it.” They piled into Henry’s car. “I’ve been forced to speculate as to why you’ve been less objective when it’s come to this project. There’s only one significant difference that I can come up with.”
“Stop,” Renton interrupted cautiously. Henry’s eyes jumped up to the rearview mirror and Jeremy turned around to gawk at him. “I mean… you’re right. I fucked up. It won’t happen again.”
Henry looked back at the road. “Good. That’s what I wanted to hear.”
There was silence in the car for a long time before Jeremy said, “I’m glad we’re going to finally have her back. I think everything will be cool after that, don’t you?”