Redemptive (Combative Trilogy #2) - Jay McLean
Six Years Earlier
“Shit,” I whispered, feeling the first drop of rain. It was already freezing out. My jaw had begun to hurt from the effort of trying to force it to shut so my teeth would stop clanking against each other. I stood up, looking for some form of shelter that the dumpster I’d been calling home no longer provided. Pulling my arms into the sleeves of my sweatshirt, I used my body heat to keep me moving, to push me forward.
A shiver ran up my spine, spreading through the rest of my body. Thunder clapped, and just like that, heavy sheets of rain poured down on me, soaking me from head to toe. My toes were frozen thanks to the giant hole at the tip of the only pair of shoes I owned.
I cursed under my breath, attempting to run and find shelter. I didn’t get far. I was so weak I could barely stand. I’d given up on trying to remember my last meals, given up on trying to work out time and days.
I slowed to a stroll, my body fighting against my will to find somewhere warm.
The evil lurkers came out at night, especially in the wet, knowing that the sounds of raindrops hitting the pavement would drown out the sounds of yells and screams while they tormented other homeless for their few possessions. The worst was when they’d prey on the elderly. Or the women.
Because apparently beating and raping aren’t criminal offenses when it came to the homeless vs. the homeless.
No one cared.
After slipping my arms through the sleeves, I reached into my bag and fished around for the toy cell phone I’d found and brought it to my ear. I started speaking into it like I was focused on a mission to get home. Saying things like, “Yeah Mom, I’ll be home soon,” just so those who saw me thought I had a purpose in life. Little did they know, my only purpose was shelter, and maybe even a warm drink.
I don’t know how long I walked before I came to a stop outside an empty diner. I shoved the fake phone back in my bag and looked up.
The lights above the building flicked on and off, but everywhere else darkness surrounded me. My breaths were short, sharp, tiny spurts of whatever energy I had left. Though barely able to breathe, the sounds of my inhales and exhales amplified in my eardrums. Like a constant, but inconsistent humming.
I pushed open the doors of the diner, the bright fluorescent lights blinding me immediately. The smell of food overwhelmed my senses and my stomach flipped at the thought of it.
I pulled the hood off my head and stood for a moment, waiting for my body to stop shivering.
“Unless you’re here to eat, you need to leave,” I heard. Slowly, my eyes roamed the small space for the voice. A middle-aged man was leaning against the counter, his dirty apron on full display. Dammit. How could he tell? I should have kept the phone to my ear.
The largeness of his frame was intimidating and the words I wanted to speak caught in my throat.
“Did you hear me?” he asked.
It took all my energy to nod. “Bathroom,” I managed to squeak, hoping for working hand dryers to warm me up.
“Paying customers only,” he said, straightening to full height.
He pointed to the door. “Out.”
I wanted to cry.
Though I knew I couldn’t.
But what I wanted more was food. Food and warmth.
I turned on my heels, my wet shoes slipping easily on the tiled floor. Then I opened the door and stepped back out into the pouring rain. I rounded the corner of the building and leaned against the wall, using it to shield me from the downpour—if only for a little while.
Too weak to stand, my body slumped until my ass hit the cold, wet, concrete. I used my arms to cover my head and started the count in my head.
Two hundred was normally the number I’d get to. It was enough time to give my mind and my body reprieve, and just long enough to get back up and start the same mission again: food, shelter, pretending like I was somebody.
A door slammed shut, but I didn’t lift my head.
“Here,” I heard, but I was too afraid to look up. “Take it,” the young male voice said.
“Just come in. Buy a burger and a drink. Use the bathrooms. Whatever you need.”
My stomach rumbled on cue, though whoever was speaking to