Stronger (Runaway) Online - Lexie Ray Page 0,1

fountain with a chunk of soap I’d pilfered from a gas station bathroom—had been rudely interrupted by a police officer. Since then, I’d sort of let myself go.

We climbed a flight of stairs and walked into a hallway. It was empty. Most of the doors were shut, but they were decorated colorfully. Many had names in cutout letters and posters of pop stars alongside magazine clippings of everything from cute, drooling puppies to scowling models strutting the latest fashions down the runway.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“It’s Mama’s boardinghouse,” Cocoa answered over her shoulder. “You’ll be staying here.”

“But I don’t have any money,” I said, feeling miserable. All I wanted was a shower and a clean bed. Would I ever be able to have them again? I really didn’t think so.

“Most of us girls didn’t, either,” she said, smiling. “Mama lets us stay here in exchange for working at the nightclub. Look.”

We paused in front of a door while Cocoa produced a key from a chain around her neck. She fumbled with the lock for a moment before opening it. A flip of the switch illuminated a bunk bed, a couple of dressers, two chairs, a table, and even a small TV.

“This is my room,” Cocoa said proudly. “I expect you’ll be living with me. My old roommate, Candy, just moved out.”

Cocoa bustled around the room, pulling out a washcloth and towel from one drawer and pushing a bucket of hygiene products into my arms.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you the bathroom.”

We walked across the hall to another room. It housed three toilet stalls and as many showers. The showers were separated only by curtains, but they seemed clean enough.

“We’re all responsible for keeping our rooms clean, but we change up the other chores,” Cocoa said, practically reading my mind. “Now, undress in one of the showers and toss me those dirty clothes.”

I felt a little embarrassed that Cocoa would have to touch the things I’d been wearing for months and months. I didn’t even have underwear anymore. When a pair of panties tore, they were pretty much finished. Stepping into the shower with the bucket, I quickly wriggled out of my clothes and handed them out to her.

“Is there a place where I can wash them?” I asked, poking my head out from the curtain.

Cocoa snorted. “Sure, we have a laundry room downstairs, but we’re not washing these. These are past all hope. Besides, you’ll have my uniform to wear tonight and Mama’s going to take you shopping tomorrow. Say goodbye to this trash.”

“Goodbye,” I whispered before turning on the water. The shirt had been something I’d salvaged during one of my many forays into dumpsters, but those jeans had been with me from the beginning. It felt like I was shedding my own skin.

Nearly all of my melancholy was washed away at the first burst of water from the showerhead. I smiled and closed my eyes, simply enjoying the feel of the liquid sluicing down my body. The hot water eased tensions I hadn’t even known I was carrying, making my shoulders sag with relief.

I could have cried at smelling the glorious shampoo. It was a coconut-scented off-brand, but I didn’t care. It was perfect. Working the suds through my hair, I carefully picked out all of the snarls. There had been a point where I seriously considered hacking all of my hair off just for convenience’s sake. That had been when I didn’t think I’d see a shower again.

Things were looking different now.

My skin seemed to tingle and glow after I got the layer of dirt off of me and down the drain. I was a little mortified by the amount of black water that pooled at my feet, but my overwhelming feeling was hope. If I’d known that a simple hot shower would affect my outlook on life so completely, I would’ve tried to get one a little harder out on the streets.

I realized showers could be had in shelters, but shelters had always scared me. The homeless people who used them seemed so desperate and lost, shuffling through the soup line like zombies.

I didn’t want to be counted as one of the undead among them. I was still alive.

But survival on the streets was something I just didn’t understand fast enough. Doing so earlier would’ve ensured a higher level of success. I’d lost my money when I misplaced my trust with a fellow runaway. I’d lost my backpack before I learned to sleep lightly.