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What happened the night before was never happening again. My life might have been some cruel joke, but I wouldn’t let myself be made into one at his expense.

I took a shower. A real shower without the barrier of my shorts. The soap stung as the water rinsed it down my body and into my crevices, but it didn’t last long and after a minute I was able to wash and dry without feeling like I was suffocating.

I wiped the steam off the mirror, my stomach flipped when I heard the door to the apartment open.

He’d come back.

I hated myself for hoping it was him.

He didn’t deserve my hope.

“Thia?” A female voice called out, slowly opening the bedroom door. “Oh, there you are.” Ray appeared with a bright smile. “I brought you some fresh clothes,” she said, setting another shirt and pair of shorts on the bed.

“Thank you,” I said, moving toward the stack. “I really haven’t had much of a chance to tell you how much I appreciate…”

“Don’t worry about it. Trust me, I know it’s not easy to be the new kid around here,” she said, her voice full of sincerity. “I had someone to help me back then, and now I’m just glad that I’m here to help you.” She looked at the floor and then to the ceiling like she was suddenly trying to fight back tears. “Anyway,” she said, shaking away whatever had crossed her mind, “I was just wondering if you wanted to come up to the house for a bit? Have some lunch? I see that you really haven’t eaten most of the food I’ve been bringing you, so maybe you just need a new setting for a while? A little reset?” I stood there without answering because I didn’t really know what to say. I needed to come up with a plan, not have a lunch date, but I also didn’t want to disappoint her. “Maybe you can help me not strangle the kids?”

Searching my brain for reasons why that wouldn’t be a good idea, her words suddenly registered with me. “Kids?” The girl didn’t look old enough to have one kid never mind kids with an ‘s’ on the end. I’d seen her almost every single day in one way or another for brief periods of time, but this was the first time I felt like the fog had cleared long enough to actually be able to think about her as more than the bringer of clothes and food.

Ray’s hair was so light blonde it was almost white. It was long too, hanging straight over her shoulders, ending just under her breasts. Her one shoulder was covered with colorful, yet feminine tattoos that turned into a quarter sleeve. While Bear’s tattoos gave him an even harder edge, they seemed to do the opposite for Ray, the light pinks and blues made her look soft. More feminine. She was definitely young, maybe my age or a little older, but had an odd air of maturity about her that made me think that she could be nineteen or she could be thirty. “Get dressed, you’re coming. They love terrorizing newbies,” she said, patting the pile of clothes.

I held onto my towel, wrapping it even tighter under my arms. “I’m not really a kid person,” I lied. I’d always loved kids and I was practically a mom to Jesse, but she didn’t need to know that.

Ray winked like she could see right through me and I knew there was no way she was letting me out of lunch. “Good because neither am I,” she said, throwing me a shirt off the pile. “But within the last year I’ve acquired three of them, so hurry, before the two oldest ones knock the house off its pillars.”

Ray was in the living room when I emerged from the bedroom. She looked me up and down and tossed a pair of brown flip-flops onto the ground in front of me and I shimmied my feet into them. They fit perfectly, and so did the shorts. Although the black tank top she’d given me was a little tight over my boobs, but it was clean and comfortable and I was grateful to have clean clothes. “How do you get your hair that color?” Ray asked as I followed her out of the garage and into the wet heat. She crossed the lawn the same way Bear had the night before when he’d taken me to the fire pit.

My traitorous skin tingled, the hair standing on end when I remembered how he first pressed his lips to mine. When he washed me gently, when he used his tongue…

“You in there?” Ray said, nudging my shoulder.

“Yeah, sorry. Just zoned out,” I admitted. “I don’t do anything to get my hair this color. When I was born my dad said it was fire engine red but as I grew up the blonde started to take over. From the age of five to twelve it was practically pink, I’m just glad it’s faded a little bit. Kids at school didn’t think it was so awesome,” I answered.

“Yeah, kids can be assholes,” Ray said. “I’m so glad those clothes fit you. At least someone can get some use out of them right now. I tried squeezing my ass into those shorts this morning, but it was a no-go situation, they were so tight I think I damaged my lady parts trying to button them,” she said with a sigh.

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