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Nothing's free, I wanted to tell her. Especially not love. But right then his gaze held mine for a long second. My mouth went dry while my body felt weirdly hot.

Beside me, Sandra giggled. "Oh God, he's looking right at us."

She bent her head down and hid behind her hair, but I held his gaze until he looked away.

Guys like him didn't come down into Tartown much. Nobody does, who doesn't already live here, but especially not guys like him.

People call this Tartown because the houses that aren't double-wides usually don't have much more than tarpaper by way of siding. You know the kind of place. If there were a railway line running through town, then we'd be the wrong side of the tracks. You can't miss the change as you walk south from the town square.

Around Henderson Street you start to see fridges in carports, patches of crabgrass growing proud and tall on otherwise bare dirt lawns, maybe a mean-eyed Doberman chained up to some old elm that has a circle of bark worn away from the constant stress of the dog's tether. By the time you've reached Jackson, there are cars up on blocks in the front yards, rusted double-wides passing for houses, and litter fluttering along the sidewalks.

And all those old clapboard houses with tarpaper siding—though some folks do manage to get aluminum or board up for the side that fronts the street.

We have a bad reputation down here: People assume that all the guys are mean and hard, the girls tough and quick to drop their panties, sometimes for money. They claim you can get pretty much any kind of intoxicant you might be looking for—from drugs to booze—if you actually have the nerve to come down here and make your buy.

Some of that's true, but for most of it's just surface—a protective mask to keep the better-off at bay. You have to be born poor to know how quick kids will turn on you if they think that living in a fancy house or having parents that work, somehow makes them better than you. And there's diddly-squat you can do about it. But if you can get them a little scared of you, mostly all they've got to throw at you is trash talk—and even then it's behind your back. Unless they're in a big enough crowd. Then they get a little fearless.

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