Caged in Winter

By: Brighton Walsh

He stares at me for a moment, his jaw ticking. Knowing him as long as I have, I have no doubt he has something he wants to say. Rather than doing so, he eventually gives a short nod, blowing out a breath. “Well, let me know when you need some recommendation letters. I’d be happy to send them.”

“Thanks, Chef.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Keep up the good work.”

I nod, shouldering my bag and heading out of the kitchen after offering good-byes to a few friends. I’m not even halfway to the parking lot before my phone buzzes with a text message.

Come out 2nite

I roll my eyes and quickly type out a response to my best friend before pocketing my phone. I haven’t taken five steps when my phone rings.

Knowing it’s him, I answer, “Yeah.”

“Why do you have to be such a pussy all the time?” Jason asks.

I laugh, shaking my head as I walk toward the street. “If that’s you trying to talk me into going, it’s not working.”

Someone shouts in the background and Jason yells back before talking into the phone again. “Well, what the fuck else am I supposed to do? You haven’t been out in months.”

“You’re an asshole. We just hung out when Adam was home a couple weeks ago.”

“Hanging out on your couch playing Call of Duty does not constitute going out, dumbass.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been doing this thing called going to classes and studying and working. Not all of us have parents willing to foot the bill through four changes in majors and the extended college plan.”

“Hey, I’ll graduate one of these years.”

I snort. “Maybe.”

“And if you’re trying to sound like less of a pussy, you need to work on your tactics.”

I chuckle, knowing exactly what he’s doing. Goading me used to be effective, back when we were fifteen, sixteen. Seven years later, not so much. “Still not working.”

He groans. “Come on, man. It’s Sean’s birthday. Everyone is out. I’ll even buy you a round.”

Heaving a sigh, I drop my head back as my shoulders slump. After four hours on my feet in the kitchen, I just want to relax. I feel like I haven’t showered in a week. I feel like I haven’t slept in even longer. Even still, he’s right—I could use a night out.

“Yeah, all right. Gimme an hour. Where are we meeting, Shooters?”

“Not sure. Sean wants to barhop. Give me a call when you head out. I’ll let you know where we are.”

“’Kay. Later.”

I hang up, pocketing my phone as soon as I reach my motorcycle. It’s still a bit cold for it to be an enjoyable ride, but Tessa needed the car, so I didn’t have much of a choice. I straddle my bike and button up my coat before I rev the engine to life. The loud roar echoes around me as I peel out of the space and rumble down the street.

Riding is my escape—the one thing I take for myself. I forget about my responsibilities—classes and bills and the people who depend on me. My mom always hated this thing, hated it the first day I brought it home, but I think she’d understand my love for it now.

When I ride it, it’s my peace.

• • •

I STILL FORGET, sometimes. Even after four years. When I walk through the front door, sometimes I expect to hear her in the kitchen, the smells of her cooking greeting me. The sound of her laughter filling my ears. The sense of security and ease I always had before everything changed.

Tonight the house is empty, not even the sounds of Tessa or Haley echoing down the hallway. I check my watch, then shoot Tess a quick text, making sure everything is okay. They probably went somewhere after Haley’s ballet practice, but there’s still lingering doubt that gnaws at my gut. After living through the kind of tragedies I have, it’s hard to turn it off—that constant worry that’s always there, lurking under the surface.

As I wait for her text, I jump in the shower, then throw on whatever clean clothes I can find scattered around my room. I’m ready to go sooner than I expected, and I grab my keys and coat on my way out the door, checking my phone for a reply. Finding one there, my worries fade, and I reply, letting Tess know I’ll be gone till later tonight.

Before starting up my bike, I call Jason to find out where they are. He’s already well on his way to being shit-faced, and I’m not sure this was such a good idea. I love him like a brother, but I can’t help that bit of jealousy I get as an outsider looking in at his life. Wondering what it’d be like to be a normal, carefree twenty-three-year-old guy. Where the only thing I had to worry about was where I was going drinking that weekend and who I was going to fuck. Instead I’m worried about keeping my scholarships and paying bills, all the while attending school full-time and holding down a part-time job.

Still, even if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love Tessa and Haley more than anything.

By the time I get to The Brewery, I know the guys have already hit several bars before this one. I spot them in the back by the pool tables. They’re loud and obnoxious, roaring over the only other group taking up space inside.

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