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October 1995

Hunter pulled the light jacket more tightly around him as a gust of wind blew once he stepped off the school bus. Last week, he was able to zip it up. But the zipper broke on Saturday. His mom had snapped at him over it and said she wasn’t replacing it until next year. He knew he should have been more careful with it but they had only gotten it at a bag sale the Salvation Army had been having. Pointing that out had only earned him a cigarette burn to the hand and a slap to the face.

 

 

Glancing down, he could see that the scab was still there, picked at one too many times. His chapped hands made the sting from it even worse. The cold air had done that, as well as make the bottoms of his feet cold, where the heels and soles of his boots were loose. They needed to get shoe glue. Maybe his mom could get it this friday. Maybe he could sneak some money out of her purse and go get it himself.

 

 

It was almost a mile to walk to the apartment building he lived in. The school in his neighborhood he went to last year had been condemned and this was the closest bus stop he could get off at. He sometimes took the city bus the rest of the way, but not recently. His mom said that it cost too much money to do every day and that he could use the exercise because his fast metabolism wouldn’t last forever.

 

 

He stumbled on the pavement as he passed a hole in the wall restaurant on Luella Street, which ripped the heel from his boot completely, leaving it dangling by a centimeter of rubber.

 

 

“Fuck!” he exclaimed, pulling the heel off entirely and throwing it in the street.

 

 

An older woman, who sat in a lawnchair right next to the joint in a nightgown and bathrobe two to three times a week, took offense to that

 

“You better watch the damn mouth, boy!” she called out, as juice from the burger she was clutching dripped from the corner of her mouth, “Your mama must not give you enough beatings if you’re spewing that filth so young.”

 

 

Hunter just stared at the woman for a second before limping away. Beatings were the one thing his mom didn’t forget about when it came to him.

 

 

Lacking a heel made it so he was a little later than usual but, after dodging a rat in the hallway and taking his key out to open the apartment door, he could see that his mom didn’t really notice. And Hunter had been used to that for a while now, but at least this time she had a reason.

 

 

“You’ve gotten taller since the last time I seen you,” the man commented in a low, raspy voice.

 

 

It took Hunter a few seconds to figure out who the guy was. The short beard threw him off and the sound of his voice was huskier. It was the scent of Pall Mall Reds dangling in the air from his lit cigarette that gave him a hesitant idea.

 

 

“Dad?”

 

 

The man grinned, his right front tooth yellowed and chipped, “The one and only. If your mother is still sure it was me, that is.”

 

 

Hunter didn’t answer. He just dropped his backpack on the ground He usually had an answer or a comeback for everything. From when he was bullied at school to when Mr. Houser mocked him when he didn’t know that Pittsburgh wasn’t the capital of Pennsylvania after all. But he didn’t know what to say to his dad. He didn’t know him well enough to make him happy or proud. He didn’t know him well enough to figure out what made him tick.

 

 

“What are you doing here?” Hunter eventually asked him, looking around for his mom, “Where’s mom?”

 

 

His father waved his hand, “Passed out in the bedroom. We drank a bit. She drank more. We...caught up with each other.”

 

 

Hunter glanced back towards his mother’s bedroom and debated for a few seconds on whether or not to check on her but then his dad spoke again.

 

 

“So how long has it been?” the man asked, taking a long drag from the cigarette, “A year?”

 

 

“Something like that,” Hunter shrugged. It was actually two.

 

 

“Hmmm,” his father hummed before standing up, “It was good seeing you. I think I’ll make a habit out of it, how’s that sound?

 

 

Hunter forced himself to not duck his head away when the man ruffled his hair before watching him walk out the door.

 

 

Staring for a moment, Hunter shook himself out of his daze before going over to stand in front of his mom’s room.

 

 

“Mom?” Hunter called out as he knocked softly, “Are you in there?”

 

 

No answer. Hesitantly, he opened the door and found his mother lying on the bed, on top of sheets, naked, and face down into the pillow. Diverting his eyes quickly, he picks up the comforter from the floor and throws it over her body, only leaving her disheveled hair exposed.

 

 

“Mom?” he prompted, shaking her shoulder, “Mom, wake up.”

 

 

“ ‘unter?” she mumbled before letting out a groan.

 

 

“Wake up,” he insisted, shaking her a little harder.

 

 

“Fuck off, kid,” she yawned, “Go do some ‘omework.”

 

 

His mom then buried her face into the pillow, which made it clear that he was on his own. He was fine with that. He was used to it, even. But if his dad came back to hang around, he didn’t want to be with him by himself. He barely fucking knew the guy.

 

 

Despite obeying his mother’s request by fucking off, he didn’t do his homework either. Instead, he poured himself a bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs and flipped the channels before leaving it on a marathon of Party of Five. He didn’t know why he decided on it. He usually liked to watch cartoons instead but the new season was starting soon. He liked the characters. He might fit in well with them. They didn’t need adults and managed to get by. He was kind of jealous of them though. They had a nice house and they had each other. Sometimes Hunter felt like he had no one. He wished he had a sibling or something. Maybe a big brother so he didn’t have to take care of stuff all of the time. He would probably be the kind of guy who would save up for a cool car, maybe work in a pizza place after school so that they could get free pizza to fill up the fridge. He daydreamed about having a big brother a lot. A big sister would be cool too, if she was like Julia. If she was like Kyle Braeden’s older sister, then Hunter was fine without one. He went over to Kyle’s to hang out once and Shannon was a bitch. Kyle said she was always like that too.

 

 

Just as a new episode starts, his mother walked unsteadily into the room, bleary eyed, and looked around.

 

 

“Where’s your father?” she asked.

 

 

Hunter shrugged, eyes on the television, “He left.”

 

 

His mother’s expression turned angry, “Of course he did. Good for nothing-”

 

 

Hunter barely flinched when his mother grabbed his half empty cereal bowl and threw it against the wall. The glass shattered and the milk and remnants of Reese’s Puffs started to pour down the drywall and onto the floor.

 

 

“Clean that up,” she ordered, before going back to her room. It was when Hunter was sopping the milk up with a paper towel that his mother came back out, dressed and digging through her purse.

 

 

“Do you have any cash on you?” his mother asked, “I need to buy more cigarettes.”

 

 

Hunter shook his head.

 

 

“Goddamn it, Hunter. Probably should find a job for you, huh? Hopefully something better than a paperboy or mowing lawns or some shit.”

 

 

Hunter gave her a strange look, “I’m eight. What else can I-”

 

 

“I did a few jobs as a kid and made plenty of money,” his mother interrupted before pausing to give him a glance,”...We’ll cross that bridge when it comes down to it.”

 

 

His mother stared at him for a few seconds, almost scrutinizing him, before taking a breath.

 

 

“Listen, I might be gone for a while. I’m gonna...I’m gonna try to give us some money to hold us over for the rest of the week. Your father thinks he can drink my liquor yet not pay a cent towards us so I guess it comes down to me...you’ll be fine here, right?”

 

Hunter shrugged, “I guess.”

 

 

By the time his mother came back in through the door, drunk and with two other men, Hunter was groggy on the couch. It wasn’t until he got into his bed that he realized he didn’t do his homework again. Dreading Mr. Houser’s reaction to that along with the sounds of his mother and the two men moaning and making thumping noises in the next room made it pretty hard to fall asleep.

 

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November 1995

 

It wasn’t until the last day of school before Thanksgiving break that he saw his dad again. He still had the same coat, still had to take the same walk from the bus stop as usual. The only difference was that it was even colder and there was now blood on his coat from the nosebleed he got yesterday when Jason Teiger had punched him on the playground.

 

 

After he entered the apartment, he could hear his mother laughing and the sounds of kissing. He went into the kitchen and widened his eyes when he saw what his mom was wearing. It was strange because he had walked in on her naked with men, as well as walking around in her bra and underwear, but that somehow wasn’t as shocking as her wearing a nice house dress with an apron, as if she were June Cleaver or something.

 

 

His dad was in a wife beater and saggy jeans. That kept Hunter more rooted to the fact that he was in the same reality.

 

 

“Hey, kiddo,” he called out, waving him over, “Come give your old man a hug.”

 

 

Hunter walked over, hesitantly and grudgingly, before putting his arms around the man’s waist briefly and backing away.

 

 

“What are you doing here?” he asked him, crossing his arms.

 

 

“Hunter,” his mother admonished softly, “What matters is that he is here, especially for Thanksgiving.”

 

 

That made Hunter hold back a wince. The last holiday he had with his dad was at Christmas three years ago. The morning had ended with his mom and dad getting in a fist fight.

 

 

“I’m making beef stew tonight,” his mother continued before looking back at his father with dreamy eyes, “It’s always been your father’s favorite.”

 

 

“Did he pay for the roast?” Hunter pressed, slightly glaring at the man.

 

 

“Hunter,” his mom warned, before peeking into the crockpot, “That’s enough. Go watch TV. Or, even better, play outside with that neighbor boy. What’s his name again?”

 

 

“Marvin?” Hunter answered, disgusted, “Marvin’s a freaking dork.”

 

 

“Well, maybe some of that boy’s smarts will rub off onto you!” his mom raised her voice, “Don’t think I didn’t see your last report card in your bottom drawer!”

 

 

“What were you snooping around there for?” Hunter sassed, “Drug money?”

 

 

He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as it came out of his mouth. Even though it could have easily have been true, he still knew he shouldn’t had said it. That fact hit home when his mom took three steps over to slap him across the mouth.

 

 

“Go outside,” her voice shook with rage as she warned him, “And don’t come back until it’s dark out, you hear me?”

 

 

Hunter glared at her, tears forcing their way to his eyes, before risking a glance at his asshole father, who had to come back today.

 

 

“Better listen to your mama, kiddo,” the man drawled, “Might have to take my belt off if you don’t.”

 

 

It took everything in Hunter not to say, “Might as well take it off anyway. It doesn’t do much good.”

 

 

 

So instead, Hunter grabbed his basketball out of his room and went out the door. As he walked along, passing the run down buildings lining the street in the process, he dribbled his ball off the sidewalk. Whenever his mom kicked him out, sometimes for a couple of hours like tonight or sometimes for the entire night or even for a few days once or twice, he thought about never coming back. He thought about just running and staying gone. There were almost 450 bridges in Pittsburgh alone. He was sure there were a few he could camp out under. He could bathe in the river and get food from the dumpster next to a really good restaurant. Hell, with a better coat and some thick blankets, he could be living better than he was right now. He wouldn’t even have to go to school. That would be the life.

 

 

“Hey, Hunter!”

 

 

Hunter let out a groan as Marvin Dinkle ran up to him. Pants too high on his waist and glasses taped up one too many times from punches to the face, Marvin was the last kid you wanted to be seen at your side if you valued your rep at all. Hunter tried to be nice to him. He really did. Marvin was always nice to him and Hunter was never the type to bully a kid for the sake of it. But god, he was such a dork.

 

 

“Hey, did you see Ms. Opal fall down at recess today?” Marvin laughed, snorting and trying too hard, “Man, that was priceless.”

 

 

Hunter hated Ms. Opal. The feeling seemed to be mutual. But he knew for a fact that Marvin liked the old bat and had helped her up.

 

 

“Nope, didn’t catch that,” Hunter dismissed and didn’t say a thing more.

 

 

“Like I said, priceless,” Marvin reiterated, “Hey, do you think I could shoot some hoops with you? I need to work on my game.”

 

 

“Sick of always being the last one picked at gym?” Hunter teased, which just made Marvin’s face fall.

 

 

“Fine,” Hunter groaned, tossing him the ball, “But don’t let it roll into the street like last time.”

 

 

“It’s not my fault that car ran over it!” Marvin insisted, only to apologize seventeen times as they walked to the court.

 

 

Hunter honestly couldn’t say which would be worse. Listening to Marvin babble and watching him trip on the court or staying back with his parents.

 

 

But, as the sun completely set and he was waving Marvin off, only to come back to the cooled dinner carelessly left out on the stove, he knew the answer deep down.

 

 

It was just hard to admit.

 

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Hunter couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed as if this Thanksgiving would be the worst one yet.

 

 

His mom doesn’t get the turkey into the oven until noon, which is honestly fine, because Hunter was used to not having a turkey at all. He didn’t feel like things were going downhill until his parents started passing a liquor bottle back and forth before the doorbell rang.

 

 

“We invited a few friends,” she mentioned to him, as she buzzed them up.

 

 

The “friends” could only be described as shady at the very best. One guy was jittery and had scabs on his face. Another man was skinny and strung out looking. And then there was the last guy, tall and muscular with bruised knuckles, a permanent scowl, and a scar running across his cheek.

 

 

They were the least inviting looking trio Hunter had ever met in his life.

 

 

His stomach started to really churn as Scabs pulled out a glass pipe, put some crushed substance inside of it, and started to smoke, passing it around the group after taking a couple of puffs. The feel of the room changed as the five kept smoking. His mother started talking really fast, moving erratically and pacing the floor, his dad kept flicking his Swiss Army knife in and out in rapid motions. All Hunter wanted to do was escape. Maybe Marvin’s mom would let him come over to their Thanksgiving. Marvin’s parents were sort of shit too. Marvin’s mom was okay but worked three jobs and was never home. Marvin’s dad couldn’t keep his fists to himself and had been responsible for rebreaking Marvin’s glasses. But they had to be better than this.

 

 

Hunter stood off to the side for a while, keeping his eyes on his mom. He couldn’t give two shits what happened to his dad but, even though his mom kind of sucked when it came down to it, he didn’t want her to get hurt. And these guys looked like they could hurt someone, especially with the way they were acting now. Skinny didn’t seem like much of a threat though, especially after he tied up his bicep and put a needle in his arm.

 

 

“Wan’ some?” he slurred out, gulping and staring wide at the ceiling, “Feel good.”

 

 

“I’m on top of the world I can do anything I don’t need that shit bringing me down fuck the cops man why don’t we take control of things this should be legal we would get shit done if this shit was giving out fuck I want another hit,” his mom said in one breath, moving and rocking erratically.

 

 

“I won’t do that shit neither,” Scar answered, a bit more composed, “I sell it. But I see what it does to you. I see you, man.”

 

 

His mother laughed hysterically at that for some reason, rubbing her arms rapidly before meeting Hunter’s eyes.

 

 

“Hey, baby!” she called out, standing up and jumping up and down a few times, “Come give your mama a hug, huh? My sweet baby, my only boy.”

 

 

Hunter took a few steps back, hands shaking as he shakes his head, “Not right now.”

 

 

“Baby, come hug your mama!” she insisted, taking a few steps towards him, “Worthless, ungrateful little shit! Come hug your mama!”

 

 

Hunter ran for his room and shut the door, locking it in the process. He took a few deep breaths and forced himself not to cry as his mother pounded on the door and screamed like a banshee.

 

 

After several minutes of high pitched, furious wailing, his mother started to pound her forehead off of his door then calmed down a little.

 

 

“Come out, baby. Come spend time with me. I need you, Hunter. I’ll always need you. You’re my little man, yeah?”

 

 

Hunter remained silent and stubborn and eventually his mom gave up and walked away from his door.

 

 

He stayed in his room for what felt like forever. It had to be several hours. From his bedroom window, he could see the sun setting and he knew he should check on his mom. Whatever she was smoking should have wore off by now. Hopefully the other guys could leave and Hunter could just put her to bed and try to forget everything that had happened.

 

 

Quietly, he peeked his head out to glance out towards the living room. They were all passed out, still sitting in chairs positioned around the coffee table. Hunter slowly crept out of his room and approached his mother, listening to see if she was still breathing. She was.

 

 

“Mom,” Hunter whispered urgently, “Mom, wake up.”

 

 

Hunter shook her shoulder and his mother slowly opened her eyes.

 

 

“Almos’ time for dinner id’nit?” His mom slurred out, sitting up.

 

 

Hunter could only nod his head. If dinner got her to snap out of it, then he was fine with that.

 

 

“Paul, wake up,” his mom said, shoving at his father’s arm until the man opened his eyes, “Help me wake these fuckers up.”

 

 

His dad slowly got up and swayed on his feet as he went over to wake up Scar. Scar recovered quickly and Scabs was jumping out of his seat as soon as he came to.

 

 

“Rev,” Scar said in a deep voice to Skinny, “Rev, wake up.”

 

 

Rev stayed stiff, face buried into the arm of the couch.

 

 

“Jesus Christ,” Scar muttered, as he turned the man over, “Rev! Re-”

 

 

Hunter had never seen a dead body before, but he wasn’t stupid. He could tell from the clouded over eyes, slightly stretched mouth, and the partially dried vomit staining the man’s chin that Skinny, or Rev, was dead and probably had been dead for a little while.

 

 

“Oh fuck!” his mom moaned, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

 

 

“God damn it,” Scar sighed, pulling the needle out from the man’s arm, “God damn it, Rev.”

 

 

“Fuck this! I’m outta here,” Scabs panicked, grabbing his pipe and running for the door.

 

 

“Vino,” Scar called out, making Skinny pause at the door, “You say a word to anyone and I will cut off your supply and slit your throat. You hear me?”

 

 

Hunter bit his lip at the words and Skinny’s expression confirmed that Scar wasn’t making an empty threat. Skinny nodded before dashing out the door

 

 

“What are we going to do?” his mom wailed, putting her face into her hands.

 

 

“Still got that van, Paul?” Scar asked, looking down at the body.

 

 

“Yeah. But fuck, how are we going to get the body out of here without anyone noticing?”

 

 

“Still have your stuff from when you were doing handywork?” Scar hinted.

 

 

Hunter had wanted to throw up when he later passed the bathroom and saw what scar was doing with the hacksaw in the bathtub. The blood. God, there was so much blood…

 

 

“Don’t look, baby,” his mother had said as she covered his eyes, “Go to your room for now, okay?”

 

 

“Mom,” Hunter whimpered, “Mom…”

 

 

“Just go.”

 

 

Later on, his mother knocked on his door and requested he come out and help her. She said that his dad went to help take the bags into West Virginia, to find a nice secluded spot, and that she needed help cleaning the bathroom.

 

 

So, with rubber gloves, Hunter helped scrub the bathtub and tried not to throw up.

 

 

“You can’t say a word about this. It...It was for the best, baby. We didn’t kill him. He did it to himself, wasn’t careful enough. But they would take you away from me anyway. The police, the government, they don’t give two shits about family. They would put you in some home and let me tell you, you are too old to get adopted out of the system. And no one loves you as much as I do. I know it don’t seem like that all the time, but it’s true.”

 

 

Hunter sniffled and wiped his nose instinctively, letting out a sob when he realized he got blood on his face.

 

 

“I love you too, Mom.”

 

 

Cleaning the bathroom had taken so long that the turkey burned to a crisp. He went to bed without dinner. But that was okay. The thought of eating made him feel sick anyway.

 

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July 1996

 

Hunter missed school.

 

 

He never thought he would even think that. But it had kept him distracted. He started having nightmares after Thanksgiving. It was almost nightly. He’d wake up in a cold sweat and sometimes couldn’t get back to sleep after. He hadn’t done better in his classes. In fact, he probably had done worse. He would fall asleep while his teachers had prattled on about math and science and grammar. Things that he couldn’t bring himself to care about. They hated him for sleeping, he was sure of that. But it was easier to sleep at school than it was at home. His classrooms weren’t right across from his bathroom and that was always a plus.

 

 

Besides, things at home weren’t good anyway. They were a couple months late on rent. The monthly checks were shrinking and his mom couldn’t find a job. She was out of her head more, doing things she shouldn’t. Hunter made her throw up once. He saw it on a Lifetime movie after a girl had taken too many pills. He hadn’t known if his mom had taken too many, but he wasn’t going to risk it. He thought it was a smart move, just in case. She was alive so maybe it had helped.

 

 

But it was hard, watching her be all stressed and drunk and high all of the time. He had stolen a couple wallets. Some of the cash that he had gotten from them had tied them over into the next week. He walked Mrs. Gordon’s dog from down the street. She paid him five dollars a day to do it.

 

 

But it wasn’t enough and he was starting to feel bad. His mom kept looking at him and studying him, as if she were making plans. Maybe she was thinking he wasn’t worth looking after now that things were rough. Dad was out of the picture again. Hunter wondered how long he would be gone this time. Mom didn’t really have any help to take care of him. Hunter would understand if she took off too. Sometimes he thinks they both would be better off.

 

 

But then, after a few days of studying him and not telling him what the plan was, she sat him down and told him she wanted to talk to him.

 

 

“Hunter, sweetie,” she had said, biting her lip and putting her arm around his shoulders, “You know...you know how we’ve been struggling, right? How money’s been tight?”

 

 

Hunter nodded his head, ready for her to say that they were moving, that she found someone else to take him, that he had to leave, that she was taking off for a while.

 

 

“Well...Hunter, there’s more that you can do for us. I...my aunt had me do it when I was a little girl. It’s...It can be scary at first but I promise, it will fix so many of our problems. I can get my medicine again, you know it makes me less shaky and sick.”

 

 

He knew it wasn’t medicine but maybe to her it was. And she looked so hopeful that he knew he was going to say yes to whatever it was.

 

 

“What do you need me to do?” he asked her.

 

 

“Just go to your room and wait. It...it might hurt but it won’t last forever, okay? A nice man is offering us a few hundred dollars, just to spend some time with you.”

 

 

Hunter felt a pit in his stomach but shrugged, “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

 

 

“It won’t be,” she promised, not meeting his eyes, “And I will be so proud of you. You’re becoming a man now. It’s time for you to help out, yeah?”

 

 

It might hurt. That’s what his mother had said. But, as he screamed and cried, he knew she had underplayed it. He shook profusely afterwards, not able to catch his breath. It was the worst thing he ever experienced in his life. His mother had shushed him after, apologizing and stroking his hair, telling him she was sorry but so proud of how brave he was.

 

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December 1997

 

Over the next couple of years, he got more used to it. He would stare blankly at the ceiling, not giving the more sadistic men satisfaction by crying and screaming. That’s what some of them wanted but fuck them. His mom stopped comforting him after, opting to get high while he was going through the worst part of his day as she just directed man after man into his room.

 

 

The spurt he got a break from it was when his dad came back into town. It was the first real hint that his mother knew what she was arranging was wrong because she had taken him aside and made him swear not to say a word to his dad. For the first time in his life, he really wanted to confide in his dad, maybe even go with the man to wherever he went to. He couldn’t give two shits about him but it had to be better than staying here.

 

 

But he couldn’t. Every time he wanted to say something about what was going on, the words got stuck in his throat. There probably wasn’t much of a point of telling him anyway. There wasn’t much of a chance the man would do something about it.

 

 

One night, his parents got really drunk and started screaming at each other. He stayed out of the way, even when he fought down his instinct to protect his mom when his dad threw the first couple of punches.

 

 

“I’ll fucking kill you! I swear to god, I’ll fucking kill you!” his mom screeched, grabbing a knife from the kitchen.

 

 

His father had laughed at the threat, although Hunter wasn’t sure what was so funny about it, before forming an angry scowl and lunging at her.

 

 

The knife went through his dad’s side almost as if he were made of butter.

 

 

“You fucking bitch!” his father panicked, falling to the ground, holding the wound, “You crazy fucking bitch!”

 

 

“That’s what you get, you good for nothing piece of shit!” his mom growled out at the man, “Hunter! Help your father to his van and make sure he leaves.”

 

 

Hunter stood there in silence, staring at them both.

 

 

“Hunter!”

 

 

Without a word, Hunter walked towards the cordless phone and dialed 911.

 

 

“Hunter, what are you doing?!”

 

 

“I’d like to report a stabbing,” Hunter informed the dispatcher, “My mom stabbed my dad...I’m ten. We live on 608 Thompson St, second floor...Thank you.”

 

 

“How dare you!” his mother snarled, charging towards him, “How dare you!”

 

 

Hunter didn’t move, just stared at her without giving one emotion away.

 

 

“What are you going to do? Stab me too?” he asked her, raising a brow, “Go ahead.”

 

 

His mother paused as her eyes filled up with tears.

 

 

“Hunter...Hunter, why?”

 

 

He didn’t answer her. He didn’t say a word, even when the police came and handcuffed both of his parents. The police officers were nice, telling him he was really brave and that he was safe now. He didn’t talk to them either.

 

 

He only answered what he had to when he was taken to Shady Links, a crisis shelter. He was given a bed and his new roommate was already asleep. The room was cold and lifeless.

 

 

He slept better than he had in months.