The only things left in my backpack were half a packet of cinnamon flavored gum, a map of the London subway, a small pocketknife, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The only item I particularly cared for was the pocketknife.
I grit my teeth at the thought of finding a place to sleep tonight, because it was most likely going to be in a sleazy alleyway, or if I was lucky,
the floor of a bookshop in Covent Garden if the elderly owner forgot to lock the door.
I wiped my hands on my stained jeans, ignoring the stares of the people surrounding me in the subway, who I’m guessing were staring at my long and tangled dark brown hair,
or the dirt caked underneath my fingernails, or possibly the bruise that was starting to form around my left eye, contrasting with my pallid complexion.
The subway announced my stop at Covent Garden, and I practically bolted out of my seat.
I ran up the steps leading out of the tube station, and ducked into the McDonald’s around the corner, making a beeline for the bathroom.
Yeah, I look like shit, I thought to myself, staring at my sunken cheekbones, dull, grey colored eyes and cracked lips.
There was nothing I could do about the black eye, or my tangled hair, but I wet some paper towels and wiped down my torso, arms, legs and face. I was as clean as I was going to get.
Having no cell phone, the only way I could get a hold of Erik was to wait for him at his infamous corner in the alleyway four blocks down from the tube station.
I leaned against a dumpster, leafing through chapter 9 of To Kill a Mockingbird, to keep myself busy,
although at this point I’ve read that book so many times I could practically repeat it from memory.
“Ash, my dear, what can I do for you this fine evening?
” A humorous tone wafted through the alleyway, causing my head to snap up and locate a tall, dirty blonde nineteen year old boy making his way to my spot near the dumpster.
Dealing with Erik always made me a little on edge, but I refused to acknowledge it. I closed the book and stood upright. “You know what I want, Erik.
” “If you want sex, baby, you only need to ask nicely,” Erik mused, ambling closer to me. I gave him a sly smile, allowing him to close the gap between us.
“And what would you do if I asked you, then?” I asked, slipping one arm around his neck, and the other inside his jacket, shielding me from the cold.
“Come back to my house and I’ll give you exactly what you need.” He murmured. I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “Your house is practically a brothel,” I retorted.
“And you’d fit right in,” He grinned, taking a close look at my face for the first time.
“Ashlin, darling, who did that to your pretty little face?” I tried not to flinch as his thumb swept below my eye.
“Starving people can get pretty rough,” I told him, replaying the memory in my mind of the sturdy man knocking me out so that he could take the muffin I had wrapped in my hands this morning,
after I refused to hand it over.
I felt around in the inside of Erik’s jacket, trying to ignore his hand still stroking my face, and the other one on my back that was continuously creeping lower and lower.
Found it, I thought as I ran my hand over the inside pocket. I pulled out two cheese sandwiches, wrapped in saran wrap, and looked back up at Erik.
“Come home with me,” He breathed, his lips inches from mine. I stood still for a moment, hating myself for seriously contemplating the offer.
It had been so long since a guy had shown interest in me, thanks to my recent homelessness that left me unable to shower often or wear properly clean clothes.
“Thanks for the food,” I replied, stepping out of his embrace. He smiled and shook his head, watching me stuff the sandwiches into my backpack. “Anything for my little criminal,” He chuckled.
I shot him a glare. “And come visit my brothel, as you call it. The boys miss you.” “Give them my love,” I countered as I left the alleyway.
Two days later I’m finally clean, thanks to the middle aged woman behind the desk at the local gym, who lets me use the showers when they aren't busy.
But I’ve also ran out of food, having finished the last of the sandwiches this morning that I had been rationing.
Erik tries to bring me extra food from his house every couple of days, but he’s unofficially the leader of the guys in his house, which takes up most of his time,
not to mention what would happen if he was spotted by the police, or even worse, spotted with me.
I’ve been self sufficient this past couple of weeks, relying not only on what Erik could bring me but on the food I’d stuff under my shirt at the grocery store,
the cafes I would dine and dash at, the few hot meals I could actually afford thanks to wallets I’ve swiped. Going days without food makes you do a lot more things you normally wouldn’t.
But winter is creeping closer and closer, threatening to tangle its icy fingers around the city,
and sleeping on ice-covered alleyways in my threadbare long sleeved shirt makes my fists clench just thinking about it.
I exhale loudly, frustrated, and take the stairs down into the tube station. I’ve never been desperate enough to actually show up at Erik’s house, but apparently it was only a matter of time.
Erik’s apartment is smushed between an ancient record store on the left, and a Chinese sex toy store on the right, in the darkest corner of Piccadilly Circus you can imagine.
I counted four cats hiding the shadows in the alleyways I walked through, eight large rats, and God knows what behind a dumpster a few doors down.
I reached Erik’s door, painted black to camouflage with the dirt covered buildings, and took a deep breath. I could already hear muffled voices from the inside.
The boys I was about to deal with knew confident, assertive Ashlin, not Ashlin who has night terrors and still vomits at the thought of her final night at that prison.
I rolled my shoulders back, swept my now-clean hair past my shoulders and glanced down at my black jeans and black jacket, picking a stray hair off the cuff.
I straightened, placed a half smile on my face, and pushed the door open.
“I’m home, boys,” I announced, striding into the cramped living room, illuminated by the dull orange glow of a single bulb.
The room smelled like a harsh mixture of smoke and the sweet smell of vodka. “Been keeping busy, I see,” I said, nodding towards Blake and the girl in a miniskirt on his lap.
“Welcome back, Ash,” Blake drawled, tilting his neck so that the girl could suck on it. I tried to ignore where the girl’s hands were headed, and turned to the other guys in the room.
Derek, Lucas and Caiden, who I’m assuming were previously playing pool, had frozen in place, and were staring at me. I raised my eyebrows, and my eyes locked with Lucas’s.
He leaned on his pool stick, and ran his eyes down my figure, not that there was much to admire, thanks to the years in prison, the trauma from two months ago, and last but not least,
the inability to eat more than one full meal a day due to that whole living on the street thing. But I blinked, and Lucas dropped his sultry demeanor, swallowed hard and made to walk towards me.
“Ashlin, I-” He stopped, looking at me with desperate eyes, as him walking towards me caused me to take a step back. “Please Ash-”
“Is Lucas bothering you, beautiful?” I whipped my head around to the hallway, where Erik was leaning against the doorframe. He sauntered toward me, running a hand through his dirty blonde hair.
“It’s nice that you finally came to see me.” I grinned, Erik’s overly confident statements putting me at ease. I could handle this. “I guess I decided to take you up on your offer,” I teased.
He put two fingers under my chin, raising my face towards the light. “Your eye looks better than it did two days ago.
Try not to get into too many more fist fights, okay?” I opened my mouth, about to make a snarky reply, when Lucas spoke.
It wasn’t a question, more of a command. Erik let go of my face, and turned toward Lucas, raising his eyebrows.
“You’ve been talking to her?” Phrased like a question, but I could tell that it really wasn’t.
“You’ve known where she’s been?” I could almost feel the anger seething off of Lucas, his fists balling up. Erik, already near me, moved in closer.
“You’ve been meeting with Erik, but you haven’t said a word to me for two months, Ash?” Another question, directed at me this time.
“Erik?” He asked me again, his chest rising, ocean-blue eyes looking into my grey ones, his voice raising and jaw clenching.
I opened my mouth, to tell Lucas that it was none of his business, but was interrupted again, this time by Erik.
“Ash and I have been getting to know each other quite a bit these past two months,” he jibed, sliding an arm around my shoulders.
Not true. But I allowed him to leave his arm wrapped around me, if only to piss of Lucas. Not that Lucas deserved it. But if Erik wanted a show, I could give him that.
“The streets get cold at night. I wanted a warm bed to sleep in,” I said suggestively, leaning into Erik. “I can arrange that, if you don’t mind sharing,” he purred, his eyes dancing.
Even Blake and the girl on his lap stopped to watch my show. “I’m okay with that,” I replied, stroking his hair with my hand. Lucas make a choking noise and my eyes snapped to his.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was sharing a bed with him.
Erik grinned down at me, before releasing me and glancing around the room. “There’s no need for introductions, but Ash is going to be staying here for a while.
And no one is to bother her in any way.”
Not that they would, most of these boys were like brothers to me. And if they even tried too, they knew I would kick their ass for it. Or at least, old Ashlin could.
Malnourished, weak and frail Ash might have some trouble. But no one was going to know that. I raised my chin and addressed the boys. “It’s good to see you guys in a place outside of prison.
” “We missed ya, Ash,” Caiden smiled at me, before turning back.