Caged in Winter

By: Brighton Walsh



Dark. Cold. Hollow.

Fitting, really, my mother would name me that.

It’s like she already hated me, even then.

• • •

I’M ONLY TWO minutes late, but to Randy, my boss, two minutes might as well be twenty. I keep my head down as I blow into the pub, trying not to draw attention to myself. I head into the back, clocking in and peeling off my armor before stuffing my hoodie and pants into my locker. I tug on the hem of my barely there shorts and crop top. Like all that adjusting will magically add three inches of material.

I pause just inside the door of the break room. Walking out is always the hardest step. Coming into the pub, with my regular clothes on, my face down, is nothing. I’m still me. I’m still invisible.

It’s hard to be invisible while wearing nothing but this. Hot pink top smaller than some sports bras I’ve seen. Black boy shorts that cover less of my skin than some of my underwear.

I can hear the raucous laughs of the patrons already. Tuesday nights aren’t usually too bad. We have a few regulars, and sometimes people celebrating birthdays, but I generally don’t have to worry too much about guys getting handsy with me, or hanging around and waiting for me after closing to see if my flirting actually meant something. Those nights are the worst.

Knowing I can’t put it off any longer, I push through the door.

“Hey, sugar,” Annette says as she mixes up a drink behind the bar. In her late forties, she’s the floor manager-slash-bartender and the only one of us lucky enough to wear jeans and a T-shirt with the pub’s logo on it. What I wouldn’t give for that much coverage. “Randy’s in the office. He didn’t notice. You’re fine.”

I breathe for what feels like the first time since I left class. “Thanks.”

She nods and tells me what tables I’ve got, and I go to work.

Shoulders rolled back. Shell in place. Smile plastered on.

Seventy-six days to freedom.


cade

This is the reason I wanted to become a chef. This feeling right here. The rush of adrenaline, the high that comes from a well-done dinner service. The sense of accomplishment when someone compliments your dish. That’s me on a plate, every time, and there’s nothing in the world that feels better than when someone loves what I’ve created for them.

The energy in the kitchen is buzzing, everyone pumped up after a great night, and I’m one of them, knowing we kicked ass tonight. I concentrate on cleaning up my station at the end of my bistro class, listening to my classmates bustle around me, excitement in the tone of their voices.

“Hey, Cade,” Chef Foster says when he stops in front of my station. “Come see me before you leave.”

“Sure thing.” I wipe down the stainless steel table and then pack up my knives. Once they’re secure in my bag, I head to where I see Chef Foster just as he finishes with another student.

He glances at me, then tips his head to the back corner of the kitchen, the only place that’ll allow us a modicum of privacy. Once we’re there, he slaps a hand on my shoulder. “Excellent work tonight, Cade.”

“Thank you, Chef.”

“I really mean it. I always knew you had talent, even when you were little, but what you’ve developed into is more than I could’ve hoped for.”

I stand a little taller at his words, pride swelling in me. Chef Foster—Mark when we’re not in school—is an amazing teacher and someone I’m lucky enough to call my mentor. Hearing that from him feels like winning the lottery. “That means a lot.”

“Well, you know I don’t bullshit.” A grin lifts the side of my mouth as I nod, and he continues, “You know these last couple months are crucial for your future prospects. Do you know yet what you’d like to do after you graduate?”

I swallow, a million thoughts bombarding me. Tessa and Haley and working in a kitchen in New York or L.A. and studying in Italy . . . My responsibilities battling with my dreams. Though it’s not really a battle at all, because there’s no competition. “Well, my long-term goal will be to open my own restaurant. Before that, I’d just be happy to work my way up to executive chef somewhere.”

“Are you looking at strictly Italian cuisine?” he asks, referring to my specialty.

“No, but all the better if that was where I ended up.”

“Have you started looking?”

“Not yet. Should I be?”

“Probably not, but I’d start mid-May. And, of course, you know you’d increase your chances if you were open to different locations.”

“You mean—”

“Outside the state.”

I stare at him, unsure of what to say to that. In the past year, he’s been hinting at me broadening my horizons for where I’d look, but it’s never been anything quite so blunt. If anyone knows how difficult that would be for me, it’s him. He’s been a family friend for as long as I can remember, and he witnessed firsthand the devastation that rocked my family. Leaving now . . . leaving Tessa and Haley? That’s not an option.

“You know I can’t do that.”

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