The bed was soft like feathers against her skin; the pillow was a cushion of air, like floating on a cloud. It was warm and comfortable with the edge of the covers against her face and the scent of freshly-laundered sheets wafting up into her nose; she could stay here all day, ignoring the world and all its troubles. But there was school and chores and homework to do, and time was moving on, as her father used to say, and -
She opened her eyes. Her father was gone. He had been gone a long time. And there was no warm, comfortable bed and no freshly-laundered sheets. No school. No homework. Only a dirty old mattress on the floor of this dirty little room that was barely large enough for it. A tattered old blanket that was barely enough to cover her legs. A pair of red shorts, short enough to expose every curve of her body. A ratty yellow tube top, held together with safety pins. High-heeled shoes which made her feet ache after hours of walking the streets.
She slowly got to her feet, still groggy from the night's work. The room reeked of stale fluids, unmentionable and nauseating. She needed a smoke, but the last of the cigarettes was stubbed out on the floor, a soldier in an infinite army of the dead. She'd have to go out and get more. Did she have any money? Did she get paid last night? She couldn't remember. There was nothing in the pocket of her shorts, nothing in the top, nothing on the mattress. Had Jimmy taken it? She wouldn't put it past him to sneak in while she was sleeping and take it; he could be such a jerk sometimes. That's OK, she thought. He knows I'm good for it. I'll just go down and get it from him. Gotta have a smoke. A drink. Something.
In a minute.
She leaned against the grimy window and looked out into the mid-morning streets. People. Walking. Walking fast, as though they had somewhere to go. Where were they going? So many people, so many people with things to do. Important things? What did everyone else do with themselves? A fleeting wonder danced on the tip of her mind: What would it be like to be one of them? Just an ordinary person, with an ordinary life. Getting up in the morning, having a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice, hurrying off to work, spending the day laughing and talking about stupid things that don't really matter, coming home at the of the day to a clean house and a clean man, a man who tousled the heads of his mop-haired children instead of -
A spasm shook her throat, and she stopped the daydream dead in its tracks. Stop. It. Now. She had seen the flash of that man's face, and it wasn't the face of a man she ever wanted to see again. Never.
Smoke. She needed a smoke. And a drink. Why was there never anything to drink in this lousy room?
She dressed slowly, her head starting to ache. She really needed that drink. Her ankles were bruised and sore from the shoes, the walking. She should find a cheap pair of sneakers to wear. Jimmy wouldn't mind if she wore sneakers for a while, would he? No, he'd probably just beat her senseless. He could hear his voice in her head: "You don't need nuthin I don't give you. I gave you everything you need!" And he had. All she needed was shoes, shorts and a tank, and that was what she got. And she only needed those until some drooling businessman with a frozen wife and a boring life stopped long enough to drop a wad in the backseat of his car on his way home, or one of the locals got lucky and felt like celebrating with a little touch and tickle in the upper loft. It didn't matter, so long as they paid. And they paid. She was good; she was pretty. She brought in the business. Now it was time to get a little return on the investment. She'd ask Jimmy. He might be in a good mood today.
She clomped down the stairs not from anger or boldness, but because her head was still fuzzy and she couldn't really see straight yet. What had she drunk last night? She couldn't remember. One bottle was the same as another to her. At least the guy hadn't stuck around. She hated it when they were still there in the morning, stinking of sweat and beer and whatever else had leaked out of their body orifices. Those were the dregs, the ones who didn't even have the sense to take what they wanted and then get out. The ones whose brains had been burned out by drugs or drink or life. She had long ago learned to not be around when they woke up. They were crazy. And stupid. And sometimes dangerous when they realized she wasn't their little lost princess.
Funny. She wasn't hearing anything. Usually there was noise. Other people, other girls taking care of their morning business. She got down to the bathroom on the main floor and the door was open and there was no one there. Usually she had to wait a while for a turn. She didn't bother shutting the door. No pretense of privacy in a place like this, not after Jimmy had torn the doors off one of the rooms when one of the girls brought in an undercover cop. No secrets here. Just something you get used to.
She washed her hands when she was done, splashed cool water on her face, wiped it off with a paper towel from the roll on the floor. Felt a little better. Hope always felt better with a clean face. She adjusted her clothes. Shook off the fuzz. Tightened her ankles. Walked to the door and stepped out into the morning sunshine and stood on the stoop and felt the cool, clean air of the city swallow her whole. Closed her eyes and waited til the blinding brightness of the mid-morning sun faded to a comforting glow against her eyelids, then opened them. Slowly.
Jimmy lay in a heap at the bottom of the stoop, a neat little hole in the middle of his forehead, framed in a pool of shimmering red.